Remember the last time you attempted to assemble a piece of simple furniture from a “big box” store? You know, the kind where the instructions include only pictures and phrases like “push here” or “click”? How well did you fare? A task like this obviously requires a fair degree of spatial skills. What may surprise you is that spatial skills are useful not just for construction tasks like this but are also related to math and science concepts. Preparing our children well for tasks and careers of the future means that spatial skills need to be on our minds. In addition to their formal educational training, we can encourage the development of spatial skills through playtime and everyday interactions with them.
Why Spatial Skills Matter
When you really consider spatial skills⏤the ability to understand and manipulate objects in space and in our minds⏤you realize that we use them all the time in everyday life. Beyond constructing furniture, we use these skills to drive, navigate, organize, cook, and more. Additionally, research tells us that many of these same spatial skills underlie and support math and science learning. The complex relationship between different components of spatial skills and math skills is beyond our scope here. However, research on children reveals that the differences in spatial skills account for 5–14 percent of the variation in math skills. Specifically, spatial skills involving understanding the relation between objects in a static situation seem to be especially important to math performance. This might include skills like mapping or scaling.1
Beyond math, spatial skills have a strong relationship with science skills as well. One particular type of spatial skill, known as mental folding, is particularly strong in predicting children’s science performance. Mental folding, as you might guess, involves the ability to mentally simulate or predict the movement of objects in space. This skill might help a child predict how magnets would react to each other or the dynamic transfer of energy. It’s easy to see how this particular spatial skill aids science thinking and learning.2
Everyday Ways to Foster Spatial Skills
At first hearing, the idea of fostering spatial skills in children may sound intimidating or complex. In reality, many of the ordinary activities we do with our children can help improve their spatial skills. One key point that the research illustrates is that starting to enhance our children’s spatial skills can start early. Studies show that as early as the preschool years, children’s spatial skills are beginning to predict their math understanding. One study found that preschoolers’ spatial skills predicted their math knowledge both concurrently and seven months later.3
With our busy lives as parents, how do we find time to incorporate activities that foster spatial skills? One easy way is to start with playtime activities. Common play activities that most children enjoy inherently reinforce spatial skills⏤jigsaw puzzles, blocks, building toys, and tangram puzzles. Research shows that construction toys (e.g., building sets and blocks that fit together) are particularly good at helping children enhance their spatial skills. When tested as