In February 2020, I bought a daybed for my eight-year-old daughter. When it finally arrived that April, hiring someone to do in-home assembly simply wasn’t an option.
“Hey, do you want to do something awesomely hard with me?” I asked her. We unpackaged dozens of screws, dowels, slats — and an unfortunate set of picture-only instructions.
And as we spent hours fitting the pieces together, I thought about something spatial cognition expert Julie Dillemuth told me years ago: “We don’t really think about our spatial skills until we have to assemble a bookcase from IKEA.”
As adults, we use spatial skills every day without much reflection: loading the dishwasher, replacing batteries, driving to the store, merging into traffic, or even shooting some hoops.
But these aren’t skills we are born with — and that’s good news for our kids. Engineering professor Sheryl Sorby once told me, “A lot of people believe that spatial intelligence is a fixed quantity — that you either have good spatial skills or you don’t — but that’s simply not true.”
Why Do Kids Need Spatial Reasoning Skills?
It turns out that “spatial skills strongly predict who will go into STEM fields.” According to one study, children’s spatial reasoning skills were more predictive of future creativity and innovation in STEM fields than math scores.
Spatial reasoning is also key to success in many endeavors beyond STEM. Yes, spatial manipulation is vital in engineering, math, and physics. But these skills also help us create art, decorate spaces, design logos and websites, build and fix things, and successfully make it home from a hike in the woods.
All of us can strengthen our spatial reasoning skills with practice, but kids’ brains are particularly primed to become spatial playgrounds.
Five Ways to Build Your Kids’ Spatial Reasoning Skills
1. Play with Blocks, Puzzles, and Spatial Games
Like many American families, we stocked up on LEGO sets and jigsaw puzzles in the early days of lockdown. (The owner of a local toystore told me that curbside puzzles sales helped him stay afloat during the shutdown!) Some of our other favorite spatial games include pentominoes, tangrams, Blokus, Quatro, Connect 4, and checkers.
According to one study, “children’s play with spatial toys correlates with spatial development.” And — while this is hopefully changing — the study also noted, “females play less with spatial toys than do males, which arguably accounts for males’ spatial advantages.” After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that Target had “blue” and “pink” toy aisles — with almost all the building toys on the blue side.
2. Involve Kids in Everyday Spatial Tasks
Chores are good for a host of reasons. Here’s one more: many household tasks require spatial reasoning. So show your kids how to load the dishwasher, set the table, and organize their sock and underwear drawer. When planning a road trip, ask your kids to figure out the route. Call them over to help put together that thing you ordered that arrived disassembled.
3. Use Spatial Language
Children who were exposed to more spatial language during their preschool years outperformed their peers on spatial tests years later. Spatial language includes references to shapes (triangle, square), sizes (tall, wide), features of shapes (corner, edge) and orientation (above, below, near, between).
Go on a shape hunt with your preschooler as you walk around the neighborhood. Play “I Spy” using spatial language. As you drive or walk together, ask your kids to anticipate where you need to go next: “Which way do we turn at this stop sign? Right or left?”
4. Read Spatially-Rich Picture Books
Intrigued by research about spatial language, Julie Dillemuth asked herself, “What if I could write a kids book that would lay the foundation for spatial thinking?” The result was “Lucy in the City,” which follows a lost racoon who engages in three spatial activities to find her way home.
My kids loved this book, so I went on the hunt for more read alouds that parents and teachers could use to support spatial cognition. You can find that list of 15 books here.
5. Enjoy Simple Mapping Activities
The best thing hanging in our house is a large map of the United States. It hangs by our kitchen table, and we use it to play geography games and dream about future travels. (You can read more about how I use this map in my article: How to Make Geography Part of Your Child’s World).
Studies show that children as young as three can appreciate the relationship between a map and the physical world. Grab some paper and make a map of the park. Or play “map hide and seek”: draw a map of the house, hide a toy somewhere, and mark the spot on the map. Next time you go to a zoo, amusement park, or local nature center, let them hold the map and be in charge of where to go!
You are not going to find inspiring quotes about spatial reasoning skills circulating on social media. Like executive function skills, these feel like complex, mysterious workings of the brain. But they are the foundation of so much later learning — and are so simple to build — that it’s worth calling your child over to help fix the broken chair and pulling out a puzzle on a rainy afternoon.