The Importance of Spatial Reasoning for Children

Has your family seen Moana? In the movie, a young girl saves her people by learning wayfinding. To navigate her outrigger canoe in the open ocean, Moana learns to analyze the position of the sun and stars to estimate how far and fast she has traveled, and to interpret the refraction patterns in wave swells to recognize when an island is approaching. Using spatial and visual thinking, she is able to sail between tiny islands in the vast Pacific without instruments.

A talent for visual reasoning undergirds some of the highest achievements in math and engineering. Einstein explored the idea behind his theory of relativity by imagining himself riding on a beam of light. Stephen Hawking has explained that “by losing the finer dexterity of my hands, I was forced to travel the universe in my mind, and try to visualize the ways in which it worked.” And in the recent movie Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson’s ability to visualize the forces acting on the flight path of NASA’s Mercury capsule led her to finding the correct math to predict its trajectory.

Due to the importance of spatial and visual thinking for real-world problem-solving, a coalition of cognitive scientists and education researchers in Ontario, Canada, has been working to integrate these essential skills into early education. Their research has clearly shown that spatial-reasoning skills are crucial for achievement in math and reading and for higher-order thinking. To help nurture this form of cognition in children, they developed Math for Young Children, a curriculum for ages 4 through 8. And—no surprise!—the teaching practices the researchers found were most effective for developing mathematical ability are very similar to those used at The Children’s School.

The Ontario team found that spatial-reasoning tasks—like manipulating shapes, practicing mental rotations and talking about how to position an object—were most engaging and relevant for children when they could manipulate tactile materials like pattern blocks. Teachers who tested the materials and activities found that children were absorbed by spatial challenges; they started to find “math time” calming and often played with the materials in their free time. Another bonus: the teachers noticed that children who were intimidated by traditional, pencil-and-paper number problems were often highly adept at spatial thinking. The success of these children at solving visual and spatial problems made them more confident and gave them a better understanding of more abstract forms of numeracy. In fact, the teachers were consistently amazed at how much more students could do using visual and spatial reasoning than they expected: even young children were learning how to test and problem-solve.

After a year using this curriculum, students had made significant gains on assessments of geometry, spatial reasoning and numerical skills compared to a control group. As well, they did better than a control group on tests of traditional, school-based mathematical concepts and skills.

Does this research-driven, sensory approach to learning math and visual thinking sound familiar? It’s one The Children’s School has pursued for decades! Our students explore and practice spatial thinking and problem-solving in lessons every day. And while cognitive researchers tend to focus on the link between spatial-reasoning ability and achievement in math, it’s a skill set that is called upon endlessly in real life. When you see your 4-year-old carefully rotating a wooden block to fit it into a castle roof, you are seeing the skills that will help her become a whiz at packing a suitcase or parallel-parking in a tight spot—or enjoying the visual paradoxes in an M.C. Escher print or the shifting configurations of a Balanchine ballet. Indeed, spatial challenges are some of the most absorbing and satisfying problems the human mind encounters.

So pull out those blocks and Legos, and build, build, build with your children!