Skip to Content

Spatial Intelligence – 13 Ways to Help Children Improve

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 curriculum​1​. Fortunately, we can help our children improve their visual-spatial skills through simple and fun activities outside of the educational system.

A young boy building a puzzle on the floor with someone.

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 Gardner​2​. 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 intelligence
  • naturalistic intelligence
  • emotional intelligence

Spatial intelligence involves understanding and remembering the relative locations of objects in mind. 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.

3D prism test - visual spatial intelligence example

To come up with the answer, 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 achievement​3​.

Spatial skills examples in mathematics:

  • A student creates a mental geometric object that can be measured, moved, and transformed to facilitate geometric calculation and visuospatial pattern reasoning.
  • 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 visuospatial reasoning tests tend to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers​4​.

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 styles​5,6​.

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.

  1. Spatial visualizers
    They think in terms of schematic images, spatial relations among objects and spatial transformations. But the images they visualize lack visual details.
  2. Object visualizers
    They think in colorful, pictorial and high-resolution images of individual objects.

Spatial visualizers usually possess excellent spatial sense 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 activities​7​.

Through training and practice, visual/spatial skill can be boosted​8​.​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 myth​10​.

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 difference​11​. 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 performance​12​.

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 exist​13​.

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 learning​14​ 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 childhood​15​. In fact, preschoolers’ spatial abilities can predict their future performance in math learning in middle and high school​16​.

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 relations​17​. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate spatial perception abilities related to mental rotation​18,19​.

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 activities to improve spatial awareness.

Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names​20​. 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 language​21,22​.

Here are some examples of spatial-terms.

Type of TermsExamples
Shapesquare, circle, sphere, triangle, pentagon
Dimensional adjectiveslarge, small, long, short, big, tiny, tall
Spatial featuresStraight, bent, curvy, corner, side, line, corner, pointy, sharp, edge
Spatial relationsinside, 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 them​23​.

“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 alone​24​.

When children use gesturing to indicate movements of objects, their visual spatial IQ 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 answer​25​.

4. Play the matching game

Play the construction matching game​26​. Start by putting together a simple structure using building blocks and then ask the kids to match it in shape and in colors​27​. 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 ability​28​.

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 perform​29​.

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 set​30​.

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 skills​31​.

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 kids​32​.

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 own​33​.

Taking photos of objects at different angles can enhance children’s ability to take on different visual perspectives and recognize changes in scale​34​.

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​35​.

13. Make three-dimensional crafts

Try some of these spatial activities for preschoolers:

Visual spatial reasoning definition infographic with visuospatial reasoning activities


  1. 1.
    Clements DH. Geometric and spatial thinking in young children. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Published online 1998.
  2. 2.
    Almeida LS, Prieto MD, Ferreira AI, Bermejo MR, Ferrando M, Ferrándiz C. Intelligence assessment: Gardner multiple intelligence theory as an alternative. Learning and Individual Differences. Published online June 2010:225-230. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2009.12.010
  3. 3.
    Tartre LA. Spatial Orientation Skill and Mathematical Problem Solving. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. Published online May 1990:216. doi:10.2307/749375
  4. 4.
    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
  5. 5.
    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. Published online November 28, 2016:109-115. doi:10.1002/acp.3300
  6. 6.
    Felder RM, Brent R. Understanding Student Differences. Journal of Engineering Education. Published online January 2005:57-72. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00829.x
  7. 7.
    Newcombe NS. Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator. 2010;34(2):p29-35.
  8. 8.
    Lord TR. Enhancing the visuo-spatial aptitude of students. J Res Sci Teach. Published online May 1985:395-405. doi:10.1002/tea.3660220503
  9. 9.
    Wright R, Thompson W, Ganis G, Newcombe N, Kosslyn S. Training generalized spatial skills. Psychon Bull Rev. 2008;15(4):763-771.
  10. 10.
    Spence I, Yu JJ, Feng J, Marshman J. Women match men when learning a spatial skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Published online 2009:1097-1103. doi:10.1037/a0015641
  11. 11.
    Moè A. Are males always better than females in mental rotation? Exploring a gender belief explanation. Learning and Individual Differences. Published online January 2009:21-27. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2008.02.002
  12. 12.
    Moè A, Pazzaglia F. Beyond genetics in Mental Rotation Test performance. Learning and Individual Differences. Published online October 2010:464-468. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.03.004
  13. 13.
    Hoffman M, Gneezy U, List JA. Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online August 29, 2011:14786-14788. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015182108
  14. 14.
    Duncan GJ, Dowsett CJ, Claessens A, et al. School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology. Published online November 2007:1428-1446. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
  15. 15.
    Gersmehl PJ, Gersmehl CA. Spatial Thinking by Young Children: Neurologic Evidence for Early Development and “Educability.” Journal of Geography. Published online November 15, 2007:181-191. doi:10.1080/00221340701809108
  16. 16.
    Newcombe NS, Frick A. Early Education for Spatial Intelligence: Why, What, and How. Mind, Brain, and Education. Published online August 5, 2010:102-111. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2010.01089.x
  17. 17.
    Huttenlocher J, Newcombe N, Sandberg EH. The Coding of Spatial Location in Young Children. Cognitive Psychology. Published online October 1994:115-147. doi:10.1006/cogp.1994.1014
  18. 18.
    Rochat P, Hespos SJ. Differential rooting response by neonates: evidence for an early sense of self. Early Dev Parent. Published online September 1997:105-112.
  19. 19.
    Hespos S, Rochat P. Dynamic mental representation in infancy. Cognition. 1997;64(2):153-188.
  20. 20.
    Casasola M. The Development of Infants’ Spatial Categories. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online February 2008:21-25. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00541.x
  21. 21.
    Huttenlocher J, Levine S, Vevea J. Environmental input and cognitive growth: a study using time-period comparisons. Child Dev. 1998;69(4):1012-1029.
  22. 22.
    Pruden SM, Levine SC, Huttenlocher J. Children’s spatial thinking: does talk about the spatial world matter? Developmental Science. Published online October 4, 2011:1417-1430. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01088.x
  23. 23.
    Ferrara K, Hirsh-Pasek K, Newcombe NS, Golinkoff RM, Lam WS. Block Talk: Spatial Language During Block Play. Mind, Brain, and Education. Published online August 10, 2011:143-151. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2011.01122.x
  24. 24.
    Singer MA, Goldin-Meadow S. Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ. Psychol Sci. Published online February 2005:85-89. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00786.x
  25. 25.
    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. Published online March 23, 2011:744-750. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01584.x
  26. 26.
    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. Published online October 2003:467-475. doi:10.1080/0300443032000088212
  27. 27.
    Tepylo DH. Preschool: A Developmental Look at a Rigorous Block Play Program. YC Young Children. 2015;70(1):18-25.
  28. 28.
    Siew. FACILITATING STUDENTS’ GEOMETRIC THINKING THROUGH VAN HIELE’S PHASE-BASED LEARNING USING TANGRAM. Journal of Social Sciences. Published online March 1, 2013:101-111. doi:10.3844/jssp.2013.101.111
  29. 29.
    Levine SC, Ratliff KR, Huttenlocher J, Cannon J. Early puzzle play: A predictor of preschoolers’ spatial transformation skill. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2012:530-542. doi:10.1037/a0025913
  30. 30.
    Pepler DJ, Ross HS. The Effects of Play on Convergent and Divergent Problem Solving. Child Development. Published online December 1981:1202. doi:10.2307/1129507
  31. 31.
    Bohning G, Althouse JK. Using tangrams to teach geometry to young children. Early Childhood Educ J. Published online June 1997:239-242. doi:10.1007/bf02354839
  32. 32.
    Subrahmanyam K, Greenfield PM. Effect of video game practice on spatial skills in girls and boys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online January 1994:13-32. doi:10.1016/0193-3973(94)90004-3
  33. 33.
    Kozhevnikov M, Motes MA, Rasch B, Blajenkova O. Perspective-taking vs. mental rotation transformations and how they predict spatial navigation performance. Appl Cognit Psychol. Published online 2006:397-417. doi:10.1002/acp.1192
  34. 34.
    Liben LS, Szechter LE. Qualitative Sociology. Published online 2002:385-408. doi:10.1023/a:1016086030554
  35. 35.
    Shea DL, Lubinski D, Benbow CP. Importance of assessing spatial ability in intellectually talented young adolescents: A 20-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online 2001:604-614. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.93.3.604


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *