Spatial intelligence, or visual spatial intelligence, is crucial in many academic and professional fields. Despite the importance, it is rarely included in kindergarten or elementary curriculum1. But we can help our children improve their visual-spatial skills through simple and fun activities.
Table of Contents
What is Spatial Intelligence
Spatial intelligence, also known as visual spatial intelligence or spatial reasoning, is the ability 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.
Spatial intelligence is one of the nine intelligences in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by American psychologist Howard Gardner.
Spatial intelligence involves understanding and remembering the relative locations of objects in the mind. Objects can be manipulated through mental movement, rotation or transformation. It is the ability to perform visualization and spatial thinking in the head.
Visual Spatial Intelligence Example
Here is an example of utilizing 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?
To come up with the answer, you need to mentally form a picture of the prism being folded.
While doing it, you need to keep track of the relative positions of the different colored sides.
Answer: 2, 3 and 6 are the correct answers.
The Importance Of Spatial Intelligence
We use spatial awareness frequently in day-to-day functioning.
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.
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
Spatial ability are particularly important to learning 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 thinking to enhance quantity comparison, and arithmetic.
Many studies have found that high visual spatial skills is linked to better math performance2.
Spatial Skills And STEM
Spatial skills are also crucial in many academic and professional fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
- 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.
- An engineer imagines how various forces may affect the design of a structure.
Research shows that college students who score high on spatial tests tend to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers3.
Characteristics Of Visual Spatial Intelligence
Is Visual Spatial Intelligence Fixed Or Malleable?
People have different preferred cognitive thinking styles4,5.
Some are verbal thinkers who think in words. They are more comfortable with semantically and acoustically complex verbal tasks. Verbalizers usually prefer written and spoken explanations over pictures and diagrams.
Others are visual thinkers who think about subject matters using visual representation. 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 better spatial skills than object visualizers or verbalizers.
So if your child is a visual spatial learner, then he/she has 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 improve6.
Through training and practice, spatial ability, and in turn mathematics and STEM skills, can be boosted7.8
Does Gender Matter?
Although many studies suggest that male performs better than female in visual spatial tasks, that doesn’t mean boys are always better than girls in spatial intelligence.
One’s belief in themselves and in the importance of effort can make a huge difference.
A recent study in Italy illustrates the importance of belief beautifully.
In the experiment, 152 high school students were divided into three groups and each group was given different instructions on a spatial relations test.
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 reference9.
Results showed that women in the first group scored the same as the men.
Another Italian study shows that believing in effort over innate ability can improve spatial performance, too. How a child performs in spatial thinking tasks can be affected given a different belief10. 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.
The gender gap could be the result of nurture rather than nature. 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 exist11.
So, never imply nor believe that girls are supposed to do worse in spatial learning, math or STEM. Girls and boys should both believe in themselves and their efforts spent on learning.
Early education plays a large role in preparing our children for later success12.
Neuroscientists find that specific regions in the brain responsible for thinking about location and spatial relationships develop in very early childhood13. In fact, preschoolers’ spatial abilities can predict their future performance in math learning in middle and high school14.
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 relations15. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate abilities related to mental rotation16,17.
Spatial ability is cumulative and durable. Those who master the skills in early childhood will have more opportunities to use it to acquire and organize additional information throughout their lives.
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. It raises one’s spatial awareness.
Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names18. Preschoolers whose parents use more spatial words (such as triangle, big, tall or bent) perform better in spatial tests than those whose parents do not use such language19,20.
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 them21.
“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 alone22.
When children use gesturing to indicate movements of objects, their visual spatial ability 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 answer23.
4. Play the matching game
Play the construction matching game24. Start by putting together a simple structure using building blocks and then ask the kids to match it in shape and in colors25. 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 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 ability26.
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 perform27.
No doubt, there is a strong association 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 set28.
Until there is research that proves the values of single-solution puzzles, we recommend using multiple-solution spatial puzzles, such as tangram, over jigsaw puzzles to help children improve their visual spatial skills29.
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 objects.
When reading these books with the kids, the parent can enhance spatial intelligence by verbal explanation and gestures.
9. Play spatial video games such as Tetris
Playing spatial video 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 kids30.
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 own31.
Taking photos of objects at different angles can enhance children’s ability to take on different visual perspectives and recognize changes in scale32.
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 intelligence.
13. Make three-dimensional crafts
Try some of these spatial relations activities.
- 1.Clements DH. Geometric and spatial thinking in young children. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 1998. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED436232.
- 2.Tartre LA. Spatial Orientation Skill and Mathematical Problem Solving. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. May 1990:216. doi:10.2307/749375
- 3.Uttal DH, Cohen CA. Spatial Thinking and STEM Education. In: The Psychology of Learning and Motivation. Elsevier; 2012:147-181. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-394293-7.00004-2
- 4.Höffler TN, Koć-Januchta M, Leutner D. More Evidence for Three Types of Cognitive Style: Validating the Object-Spatial Imagery and Verbal Questionnaire Using Eye Tracking when Learning with Texts and Pictures. Appl Cognit Psychol. November 2016:109-115. doi:10.1002/acp.3300
- 5.Felder RM, Brent R. Understanding Student Differences. Journal of Engineering Education. January 2005:57-72. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00829.x
- 6.Newcombe NS. Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator. 2010;34(2):p29-35.
- 7.Lord TR. Enhancing the visuo-spatial aptitude of students. J Res Sci Teach. May 1985:395-405. doi:10.1002/tea.3660220503
- 8.Wright R, Thompson W, Ganis G, Newcombe N, Kosslyn S. Training generalized spatial skills. Psychon Bull Rev. 2008;15(4):763-771. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18792502.
- 9.Moè A. Are males always better than females in mental rotation? Exploring a gender belief explanation. Learning and Individual Differences. January 2009:21-27. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2008.02.002
- 10.Moè A, Pazzaglia F. Beyond genetics in Mental Rotation Test performance. Learning and Individual Differences. October 2010:464-468. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.03.004
- 11.Hoffman M, Gneezy U, List JA. Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. August 2011:14786-14788. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015182108
- 12.Duncan GJ, Dowsett CJ, Claessens A, et al. School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology. November 2007:1428-1446. doi:10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.1248
- 13.Gersmehl PJ, Gersmehl CA. Spatial Thinking by Young Children: Neurologic Evidence for Early Development and “Educability.” Journal of Geography. November 2007:181-191. doi:10.1080/00221340701809108
- 14.Newcombe NS, Frick A. Early Education for Spatial Intelligence: Why, What, and How. Mind, Brain, and Education. August 2010:102-111. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2010.01089.x
- 15.Huttenlocher J, Newcombe N, Sandberg EH. The Coding of Spatial Location in Young Children. Cognitive Psychology. October 1994:115-147. doi:10.1006/cogp.1994.1014
- 16.Rochat P, Hespos SJ. Differential rooting response by neonates: evidence for an early sense of self. Early Dev Parent. September 1997:105-112. doi:17.Hespos S, Rochat P. Dynamic mental representation in infancy. Cognition. 1997;64(2):153-188. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9385869.18.Casasola M. The Development of Infants’ Spatial Categories. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. February 2008:21-25. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00541.x19.Huttenlocher J, Levine S, Vevea J. Environmental input and cognitive growth: a study using time-period comparisons. Child Dev. 1998;69(4):1012-1029. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9768484.20.Pruden SM, Levine SC, Huttenlocher J. Children’s spatial thinking: does talk about the spatial world matter? Developmental Science. October 2011:1417-1430. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01088.x21.Ferrara K, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe NS, Golinkoff RM, Lam WS. Block Talk: Spatial Language During Block Play. Mind, Brain, and Education. August 2011:143-151. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2011.01122.x22.Singer MA, Goldin-Meadow S. Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ. Psychol Sci. February 2005:85-89. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00786.x23.Joh AS, Jaswal VK, Keen R. Imagining a Way Out of the Gravity Bias: Preschoolers Can Visualize the Solution to a Spatial Problem. Child Development. March 2011:744-750. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01584.x24.Wolfgang C, Stannard L, Jones I. Advanced constructional play with LEGOs among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Early Child Development and Care. October 2003:467-475. doi:10.1080/030044303200008821225.Tepylo DH. Preschool: A Developmental Look at a Rigorous Block Play Program. YC Young Children. 2015;70(1):18-25.26.Siew. FACILITATING STUDENTSâ GEOMETRIC THINKING THROUGH VAN HIELEâS PHASE-BASED LEARNING USING TANGRAM. Journal of Social Sciences. March 2013:101-111. doi:10.3844/jssp.2013.101.11127.Levine SC, Ratliff KR, Huttenlocher J, Cannon J. Early puzzle play: A predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Developmental Psychology. 2012:530-542. doi:10.1037/a002591328.Pepler DJ, Ross HS. The Effects of Play on Convergent and Divergent Problem Solving. Child Development. December 1981:1202. doi:10.2307/112950729.Bohning G, Althouse JK. Using tangrams to teach geometry to young children. Early Childhood Educ J. June 1997:239-242. doi:10.1007/bf0235483930.Subrahmanyam K, Greenfield PM. Effect of video game practice on spatial skills in girls and boys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. January 1994:13-32. doi:10.1016/0193-3973(94)90004-331.Kozhevnikov M, Motes MA, Rasch B, Blajenkova O. Perspective-taking vs. mental rotation transformations and how they predict spatial navigation performance. Appl Cognit Psychol. 2006:397-417. doi:10.1002/acp.119232.Liben LS, Szechter LE. Qualitative Sociology. 2002:385-408. doi:10.1023/a:1016086030554