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Spatial Reasoning Skills: How to Foster in Children

Girl playing puzzle with momGirl playing puzzle with mom  

​Spatial reasoning is the ability to mentally manipulate shapes and orientate ourselves in everyday environments. These skills are an essential part of learning math, science and engineering. Engaging toddlers early in activities like puzzles may help improve spatial reasoning skills over time.

Studies show parents can do simple tasks to foster math skills in preschoolers. Similarly, parents can also nurture spatial skills in a child. Here are tips to remember next time you play a puzzle or blocks with your toddler.

Use the right words

Preschool children who hear their parents use spatial terms to describe the size and shape of objects, and then use those words themselves, perform better on tests of their spatial skills. Spatial terms are:

  • words that describe shapes, such as "round," "square," "corner," and "straight edge"
  • words that describe spatial concepts, such as "over," "under," "little," and "big"

Choose activities that require you to use spatial terms, such as blocks or puzzles. These activities give a child more opportunity to talk about spatial shapes and features.

You can also use spatial terms in daily activities, such as when cutting vegetables while preparing a meal.

Use gestures

Providing a gesture along with the spatial word helps children improve a child’s understanding of the word. For example, when describing the spatial word "straight," move your hand straight up and down. Or trace what a corner looks like in the air. Using gestures gives children clues to the meaning of these words.

Praise efforts, not results

Many studies show praising a child’s efforts nurtures a child’s internal motivation to learn. While engaging with your child, give the appropriate type of praise. Do not say "You are good at puzzles." This type of praise focuses on performance and implies that success is the result of innate ability, not effort. Eventually, the child will find a puzzle she is not good at, and may become discouraged. Instead, say "You did a good job building that castle!" or "That puzzle looked really hard, but you kept trying and you did it!"

Be sensitive to your child’s skill level

Activities should be challenging enough that your child learns something, but not so difficult that your child becomes frustrated. As you see your child gaining feelings of confidence, gradually introduce more difficult activities, such as puzzles with more pieces.

Key points

  • Activities that use spatial skills can help preschoolers build math skills. 
  • Use words that describe shapes, sizes, and other spatial concepts when talking to your child.
  • Use gestures to reinforce the meaning of spatial words.
  • Give your child activities that challenge him or her.

Levine, S.C., Ratliff, K.R., Huttenlocher,J., & Cannon, J. (2011, October 31). Early Puzzle Play: A predictor of preschoolers' spatial transformation skill. Developmental Psychology. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025913.

Pruden, S. M., Levine, S. C., & Huttenlocher, J. (2011). Children's spatial thinking: does talk about the spatial world matter? Developmental Science, 14, 1417-1430