Message in a Backpack ™ Developing Your Preschooler’s Spatial Thinking
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Research suggests that preschoolers’ early mathematics learning—including spatial-thinking skills—is related to later success in both reading and math. Spatial thinking involves children learning to navigate through their environment, to use maps and diagrams to solve problems, and to follow directions. These skills are linked to later achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, and these skills grow tremendously between the ages of 3 and 5. Here are some tips for supporting your preschooler’s spatial thinking!
Play Fun Spatial-Thinking Activities!
Playing activities and games at home can positively improve preschoolers’ spatial-thinking skills. These activities include solving puzzles and mazes, playing with blocks, and using spatial words (right, left, under, near, farther).
Read Books to Engage in Spatial Thinking!
Reading books that include spatial words or ideas can be an effective way to promote spatial thinking. For example, two books by Julie Dillemuth help foster spatial learning. In Lucy in the City, a lost raccoon tries to find her way home. In Mapping My Day, a young girl uses maps throughout her day.
Use Technology as a Tool!
Mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets, provides unique opportunities to foster and practice spatial thinking. For example, mapping apps on smartphones can be used to navigate from place to place, and games on tablets can engage children in learning opportunities. Gracie & Friends Map Adventures is a free math app designed for families and preschoolers to play together; it’s available at first8studios.org.
Here are some of our other favorite at-home and on-the-go activities from First 8 Studios at WGBH:
- Neighborhood I Spy: Spot objects around you and use spatial words (under, next to, in front of, around, to the left of/right of, close to, far from, behind) to give hints about what object you’re spying. For example, “I spy something next to the door.”
- Set the Table, Please: Use spatial words to help your child set the table by giving hints about where to place the silverware, plates, and cups. For example, “The spoon goes to the right of the plate.”
- Map Maker: Put spatial-thinking skills and vocabulary to use by creating maps of rooms in your home or of places you like to go, such as the park or the zoo. Start by listing landmarks to include, pull out the art supplies to make your map, and then draw a pathway on the map to follow!
Copyright © 2021 National Association for the Education of Young Children. See permissions and reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
Ashley Lewis Presser is a research scientist at Education Development Center’s Center for Children & Technology. She investigates effective processes for improving STEM learning—particularly for young children—and uses that information in the design of educational interventions.
Jillian Orr, EdM, GBH executive producer, focuses on participatory design with learning scientists, parents, teachers, and children to help build the research base for early learning with technology.
Mollie Levin is a senior project manager—focused on early childhood initiatives—at WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts.