Teaching Strategies

How to Foster Spatial Skills in Preschool and Elementary Students

Good spatial skills often predict future success in math, and all students can improve in this area with practice.

March 2, 2022
nazar_ab / iStock

Spatial skills refer to abilities that involve visualizing and mentally manipulating objects, shapes, and locations. We use spatial skills in everyday life, whether following a diagram to put together a piece of furniture, doing a jigsaw puzzle, interpreting a graph in a news article, or navigating through buildings and neighborhoods.

Spatial skills are also tightly linked to students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In preschool, children with stronger spatial skills tend to have stronger math skills.

Spatial skills are important for several reasons: They help students visualize math problems that are new to them (e.g., imagining three apples and two apples to solve 3+2), developing an accurate mental number line, using  a “mental sketchpad” for arithmetic, visualizing dynamic scientific processes, and interpreting maps, graphs, and diagrams.

Importantly, all students can improve their spatial skills through practice. In school-age students, training them in spatial skills gives a two-for-one benefit—students improve their spatial skills and numerical skills at the same time. Improving students’ spatial skills improves their math achievement right away and sets them up for success in STEM coursework later on.

One study estimated that if all U.S. students received spatial skills training, twice as many students would have the spatial skills of a typical engineering student.

So how can educators “spatialize” their classrooms? Spatial activities are fun, are engaging, and can be incorporated into many subject areas across grade levels. They often involve manipulatives, but for them to be most effective, students should first visualize spatial transformations in their head, make predictions, and then test those predictions using real-world materials.

Spatialization Across the Curriculum

Math: Spatializing the math curriculum involves tailoring geometry lessons to include dynamic visualization involving 2D and 3D shapes. For preschool-aged children, this can take the form of goal-oriented block and puzzle play, for example, using pattern blocks to create specific shapes.

As another example, children from preschool and beyond can benefit from the “Cube Challenge,” where students use a specific number of multilink cubes to make as many unique 3D figures as possible. Starting with three cubes helps students get the idea, and making all the unique combinations of four cubes is a great challenge for young students.

Students can practice 2D-to-3D spatial thinking by constructing 3D geometric figures out of paper (e.g., cubes, cylinders, or pyramids). This requires students to draw the 2D “net” of the 3D solid, visualize how to fold it into a 3D shape, and then physically fold it to find out if their predictions were correct.

One example of a 3D-to-2D visualization activity is sketching 2D cross-sections of 3D shapes. Students often confuse surface features with cross-sections; for example, they expect the cross-section of a cylinder to be round in all directions. Students can strengthen their spatial skills by sketching cross-sections of 3D figures (e.g., cylinders, rectangular prisms, and/or square pyramids) and checking their predictions using real-world models (e.g., cutting a Play-Doh cylinder in half).

Social studies: Map reading and navigation are great ways to practice spatial thinking—for instance, making maps of their own classroom, school building, or neighborhood. Older students can incorporate accurate scales and proportions. Students of all ages can engage in treasure hunt activities where students use a map of their classroom (provided by the teacher or created by students) to find a hidden treasure.

Interpreting information presented on larger-scale country and world maps also requires spatial thinking. Maps can present so much interesting information—average temperatures, population density, forestation, lightning strikes—ask students to notice patterns, make predictions, and uncover relationships.

Science: The science classroom is a natural fit for incorporating spatial thinking. Because so many scientific concepts involve very large scales (e.g., astronomy) or very small scales (e.g., cell biology) that can’t be directly observed, diagrams and models are critical for students’ learning. However, these diagrams and models aren’t always easy for students to understand.

Providing explicit instructions on interpreting diagrams and helping students to make connections between 2D diagrams and 3D models fosters scientific thinking and spatial skills at the same time. Students can also benefit from sketching scientific processes. For example, an assignment might involve sketching the water cycle, a cross-section of a cell, or a subduction event. Sketching encourages students to put their ideas into a spatial format and gives teachers insights into students’ current understandings and misconceptions.

Art: Visual artists (like STEM professionals) tend to have stronger-than-average spatial skills, perhaps because visual art frequently involves 2D-to-3D and 3D-to-2D transformations.

Simply drawing a flat sketch of a 3D object, such as a box, apple, or vase, practices spatial thinking. Going a step further, drawing the same object from multiple perspectives can strengthen perspective-taking skills. For yet more challenge, ask students to draw an object from a perspective that they cannot directly observe (e.g., as if they were looking down from the ceiling).

Art projects that involve using 2D materials, like paper or fabric, to create 3D forms can strengthen students’ 2D-to-3D visualization skills. For example, origami enhances spatial thinking—it involves interpreting diagrams, visualizing the outcome of a fold, and then seeing the outcome after physically folding the paper.

Whether you teach math, social studies, science, or art, from preschool to elementary school and beyond, there are ample opportunities to incorporate spatial thinking. Spatial activities are fun and engaging for students. Most of all, every student can improve their spatial skills, and these spatial skills can set them up for success in STEM, the arts, and everyday life.

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