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Math Mondays: Space Explorers

This week we’ll address why spatial thinking is important and also talk about ways in which we can help children develop their spatial skills.

Spatial thinking entails thinking about space and our bodies in space.


Why is spatial thinking important?

Spatial skills are essential to everyday tasks like determining and following a map route, putting together a piece of furniture, or understanding what graphs represent in a blog post or newspaper.

Those are all adult skills, obviously. For children, the building blocks to developing those are, well, literal building blocks! And puzzles, and Legos, and tinker toys. 

Spatial skills are essential to understanding concepts in mathematics, science, and engineering, where complex explanations, maps, and diagrams are par for the course.

In fact, research suggests that mastering spatial ability early is core to success in math and science (e.g., Delgado & Prieto, 2004) as well as an important predictor of students’ interest and success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) (Shea, Lubinski & Benbow, 2001, Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). And The New York Times published an article discussing a study that finds spatial skill as an early sign of creativity!

Spatial reasoning serves as a basis for abstract knowledge (Tversky, 2004) and also our understating of language.

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss how our everyday language is filled by references to spatial metaphors and how we use our movement in space to make sense of many abstract ideas including time or even our own feelings! It’s a great and fascinating read. Check it out if you have the time.


Composition and decomposition of complex shapes 

This week we focus on composing complex shapes using simple ones — two triangles making a square, or two triangles making a fish — and decomposing a complex shape into simpler ones (a house is made up of a square and a triangle, or a kite is made by two triangles).

Learning how to manipulate objects/shapes to create other shapes is an early challenge children face.

For example, try to imagine putting two of these right triangles together to make a square:

Perhaps the simplest one to imagine as a square is the first set, and the last set is the most challenging one. It all depends on how much you had to mentally rotate and slide each of the triangles to make a square out of them.

The other challenge for children is the understanding that a triangle can be a triangle or it can be half of a square. The ability to to go back and forth between these two representations (a right triangle = half of a square) is in fact very important for later mathematical reasoning and logical proofs (of course we keep that for when they get older!).


How to help children develop their spatial skills:

  • Engage in simple activities that involve spatial thinking. These games could include solving puzzles, building things, drawing and coloring shapes, finding objects in a room, or challenging them to find all the triangles in the kitchen!
  • Use spatial vocabulary in everyday language and when playing. For example, use words such as rotate, flip, move when solving puzzles or when playing with blocks and Legos. Use relational words and phrases such as on top of, under, below, beside, next to, and above when solving puzzles, while cleaning messy rooms, or when challenging your child to find an object you have hidden somewhere close by.
  • When you talk about spatial relations (up/down/below etc.), demonstrate them in your gestures.
  • Point out shapes in picture books or while you’re out with your kids, and ask your child to look at them closely. What shape is a face, or a window, or a STOP sign, or an airplane wing, or a fallen leaf on the lawn?



Cross, C.T., Woods, T.A., & Schweingruber, H. (Eds.). (2009). Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Delgado, A.R., & Prieto G. (2004). Cognitive mediators and sex-related differences in mathematics. Intelligence, 32 ( 1) , pp. 25-32.

Shea, D. L., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2001). Importance of assessing spatial ability in intellectually talented young adolescents: A 20-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(3), 604–614.

Tversky, B. (2004). Visuospatial Reasoning. In K. J. Holyoak & R.G. Morrison (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning (pp. 209-240). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The Malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin.

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817–835.