Spatial intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, or spatial IQ, is crucial in many academic and professional fields. Despite the importance, it is rarely included in the kindergarten or elementary curriculum1. Fortunately, we can help our children improve their visual-spatial skills through simple and fun activities outside of the educational system.
What is Spatial Intelligence
Spatial intelligence, also known as visual spatial intelligence or spatial reasoning, is the capacity to imagine or visualize in one’s mind the positions of objects, their shapes, their spatial relations to one another and the movement they make to form new spatial relations. It is the ability to perform spatial visualization and spatial reasoning in the head.
Spatial intelligence is one of the nine intelligences in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by psychologist Howard Gardner2. In his intelligences theory, Gardner challenged the narrow definition of general intelligence with his proposal of 7 at first, and now 9, types of intelligence:
- spatial intelligence
- linguistic intelligence
- logical-mathematical intelligence
- musical intelligence
- kinesthetic intelligence
- interpersonal intelligencelocation
- naturalistic intelligence
- emotional intelligence
Spatial intelligence involves understanding and remembering the relative locations of objects in the mind. Objects, 2d or 3d objects, can be manipulated through mental movement, rotation or transformation.
Spatial Intelligence Examples
Here are some examples of utilizing visual spatial intelligence.
In the following prism test, can you tell when 1 is folded to form a triangular prism, which of the following (2-7) can be produced? Note: colors are only on one side. The back is white.
To come up with the answer, you need to form a picture of the prism being folded mentally. While doing it, keep track of the relative positions of the different colors.
Answer: 2, 3 and 6 are the correct answers.
The Importance Of Spatial Intelligence & More Examples
We use spatial intelligence to create spatial awareness frequently in day-to-day functioning.
Here are some visual-spatial skills examples in our everyday lives:
- A child imagines where a toy is inside his bedroom before walking into the room to get it.
- When we pack our luggage, we visualize how different items can fit together compactly.
- To assemble a furniture, we need to match the two-dimensional diagrams in the instructions to the three-dimensional furniture parts.
Spatial Intelligence And Math
High spatial aptitude is particularly important to mathematics learning. Studies have found that strong spatial abilities are linked to better mathematics achievement3.
Spatial skills examples in mathematics:
- A student creates a mental geometric object that can be measured, moved, and transformed to facilitate geometric calculation and pattern recognition.
- A mathematician uses visual spatial reasoning to enhance quantity comparison, arithmetic, and number sense.
Visual Spatial Skills And STEM
Visual spatial skills are also vital in many academic and technical fields, such as science, computer science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Research shows that college students who score high on spatial reasoning tests tend to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers4.
Visual spatial skills examples in STEM fields:
- A geoscientist mentally manipulates the movement of tectonic plates to see the process of earth formation.
- A neurosurgeon visualizes different brain areas to predict the outcome of a surgery.
- A civil engineer imagines how various forces may affect the design of a system.
- Architects and engineers use material of various shapes and sizes to create stable structures.
Spatial Ability in Different Areas
STEMs are not the only domains that require high spatial ability to excel in. Other areas or work call for great spatial ability, too.
Spatial ability examples in society:
- A designer uses visual spatial reasoning concept to enhance the user experience of his product.
- An artist creates stunning visual arts.
- A gymnast uses spatial awareness to perform a sequence of movements with the human body.
Characteristics Of Visual Spatial Intelligence
Visual Spatial Intelligence Is Malleable
People have different preferred cognitive process and cognitive thinking styles5,6.
Some are verbal thinkers who have a natural inclination to think in words. They are more comfortable with semantically and acoustically complex verbal tasks. Verbalizers usually prefer written and spoken explanations over visual images and diagrams.
Others are visual thinkers who think about subject matters using visual representations. There are two types of visualizers.
- Spatial visualizers
They think in terms of schematic images, spatial relations among objects and spatial transformations. But the images they visualize lack visual details.
- Object visualizers
They think in colorful, pictorial and high-resolution images of individual objects.
Spatial visualizers usually possess excellent spatial skills than object visualizers or verbalizers.
So if your child is a visual spatial learner, then they may have a head start in spatial thinking.
However, visual spatial intelligence is not a fixed ability. Although some people are better at spatial processing than others, the good news is everyone can improve through visual spatial activities7.
Through training and practice, visual/spatial skill can be boosted8.9
Gender Difference In Spatial Skill Myth
Although there are old beliefs that boys are better in spatial thinking, and therefore STEM subjects, than girls, large amount of studies in recent years have debunked this myth10.
In America, females, on average, do not perform as well as males on some spatial tasks – most notably mental rotation using spatial working memory. This phenomenon could result from the way children are raised in this culture.
In a recent study in Italy, 152 traditional high school students were divided into three groups and each group was given different instructions on a spatial intelligence test. Participants in one group was told that women performed better than men in this task while another group was told men were better and the third group was not told any gender difference11. Results showed that women in the first group had similar scores as the men.
Another Italian study shows that believing in effort over innate ability can improve spatial recognition skills, too.
Researchers also find that the more a group of men and women practices spatial thinking, the smaller the gender gap is in visual spatial skills.
Therefore, one’s attitude and belief in themselves, and in the importance of effort, can make a huge difference in visual-spatial tasks performance12.
Here’s another proof that there are links between the gender gap and the way kids are raised. In a remote community in India where women have equal or more rights than men, such a gender gap in visual spatial intelligence does not exist13.
Early Learning To Get A Head Start
Scientists have found that early education plays a large role in preparing our children for later success in spatial learning14 because spatial reasoning starts early in the child development process.
Neuroscientists find that specific regions in the brain responsible for thinking about location and spatial relation develop in very early childhood15. In fact, preschoolers’ spatial abilities can predict their future performance in math learning in middle and high school16.
As children’s first teachers, parents can start teaching young children, even toddlers, the basics of spatial thinking.
It is not too early to start familiarizing your toddler with spatial relations17. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate spatial perception abilities related to mental rotation18,19.
Spatial ability and knowledge are cumulative and durable. Those who master the skills in early childhood, regardless of gender, will have more opportunities to practice and improve it.
How To Improve Spatial Intelligence
1. Use spatial language in everyday interactions
Parents can help children improve spatial intelligence by using more spatial terms in everyday interaction.
Spatial language is a powerful spatial learning tool. Using spatial terms in everyday life is one of the best spatial awareness activities for kids.
Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names20. Preschoolers whose parents use more spatial vocabulary (such as triangle, big, tall or bent) perform better in spatial tests than those whose parents do not use such language21,22.
Here are some examples of spatial-terms.
|Type of Terms||Examples|
|Shape||square, circle, sphere, triangle, pentagon|
|Dimensional adjectives||large, small, long, short, big, tiny, tall|
|Spatial features||Straight, bent, curvy, corner, side, line, corner, pointy, sharp, edge|
|Spatial relations||inside, outside, under, around, corner, on top of, at the bottom of, in front of, behind, diagonal, across|
But don’t just speak at your child to teach spatial terms. Ask your child to repeat the words back to you and explain what they mean. Encourage your child to use those terms, too.
Kids who can use more spatial terms are found to perform better in spatial recognition tasks. You can help them make the connections between spatial relations and objects around them23.
“Is the candy inside or outside of the glass?”
“Do you think the toy is under or behind the couch?”
“I see Lily across the street!”
2. Teach gestures and encourage kids to use them to explain spatial relations
Hand-gesture is a powerful communicating and teaching tool. Children often learn better when gestures are used by teachers than when speech is used alone24.
When children use gesturing to indicate movements of objects, their visual spatial intelligence also improves. This improvement is also detected in children who do not spontaneously gesture but do so after being prompted to.
3. Teach children how to visualize using the mind’s eye
Visualization is using visual imagery to mentally represent an object not physically present. It is a powerful skill in spatial learning and problem-solving.
Young children can be taught to use visualization to enhance their spatial ability. For example, young children often have “gravity bias”. In an experiment, when a ball drops, preschoolers tend to think that it will appear directly below, even if the ball drops down a twisted tube. But when they are instructed to visualize the path of the ball before answering, more kids got the right answer25.
4. Play the matching game
Play the construction matching game26. Start by putting together a simple structure using building blocks and then ask the kids to match it in shape and in colors27. You can also have one child build the structure while another copy.
As they become more familiar with building and more confident in matching, increase the complexity of the structures.
5. Play blocks and build objects in a storytelling context
Playing with building objects such as Lego and wooden blocks can substantially increase a child’s spatial thinking ability.
But you don’t need perfectly crafted toys. Even a few cereal boxes or toilet paper rolls can be used to stack and build interesting structures.
Give them a problem to solve. A study shows that when block building activities are carried out in a storytelling context, children’s spatial intelligence improves more.
6. Play tangram, non-jigsaw and other open-ended spatial puzzles
Tangram is an ancient Chinese puzzle consisting of seven pieces. The pieces can be rearranged into many different shapes such as animals, people or objects. It is a teaching tool that has been proven to increase students’ spatial ability28.
The jigsaw puzzle has been recommended by many sources to help increase children’s spatial intelligence. It is probably because a study finds that preschoolers who already play puzzles perform better in a mental transformation spatial task than those who don’t. It also finds that the more frequently the child plays, the better they perform29.
No doubt, there are strong correlations between puzzle solving and spatial intelligence. However, no controlled studies have been found to establish a causal relationship between them.
The problem with jigsaw puzzles is that, unlike tangram, there is only one fixed way to fit the pieces together. A study has found that preschoolers who have played with a single-solution puzzle are less innovative and flexible in subsequent problem solving than children who have played with a multiple-solution block building set30.
Until there is research that proves the values of single-solution puzzles, I recommend using multiple-solution spatial reasoning puzzles, such as tangram, over jigsaw puzzles to help children improve their visual spatial skills31.
7. Expose children to map reading
Map reading can help children acquire abstract concepts of space and the ability to think systematically about spatial relationships that are not otherwise experienced directly in the physical world.
Maps present spatial information that differs from direct experience navigating the world. Children can learn to think about multiple large-scale spatial relations among different locations in a concrete way through map reading.
8. Read spatial-rich books
Books such as Zoom and Re-Zoom are great picture books that can draw children into a world of visualization and spatial thinking. The increasing level of detail helps illustrate the different spatial relations among different objects.
When reading these basic books with the kids, the parent can enhance spatial intelligence by verbal explanation and gestures to create mental pictures.
9. Play spatial reasoning games such as Tetris
Playing video spatial reasoning games such as Marble Madness or Tetris, have shown to be beneficial to children’s spatial intelligence. The improvement is more pronounced in low-ability kids32.
10. Help your child explore photography
Visual spatial perspective taking is the ability to imagine how things look like from another viewpoint different from one’s own33.
Taking photos of objects at different angles can enhance children’s ability to take on different visual perspectives and recognize changes in scale34.
11. Play Origami and practice paper folding
Mental paper folding has long been used to increase mental rotational ability.
Although no research is found to link physical paper folding to spatial intelligence, it is not farfetched to believe that physical paper folding practice can enhance mental paper folding ability.
12. Learn to play music
Several studies have found that learning to make music can raise spatial-temporal ability.
Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to think of spatial relations that change through time. This skill allows you to mentally pack your luggage one item after another to see how to fit the most items.
Notice that this is different from the controversial “Mozart Effect” theory that claims listening to music can enhance a variety of skills including spatial thinking.
A meta-analytic review of 553 studies supports the theory that music instruction, rather than music listening, is associated with better spatial intelligence35.
13. Make three-dimensional crafts
Try some of these spatial activities for preschoolers: https://www.rookieparenting.com/spatial-reasoning-activities-visualize-shapes-through-play/
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