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How can we support young children’s spatial reasoning?

Supporting the development of young children’s spatial reasoning (sometimes known as spatial thinking) appears to be an underutilised route to improving mathematical abilities that are important in the school years and beyond. With this in mind, in the Early Childhood Mathematics Group we have been working on approaches to promote the development of spatial reasoning skills. We share our top six messages for practice.

“The early years are a particularly important time for developing spatial reasoning skills.”

Spatial reasoning – thinking about the location and dimensions of objects and how they relate to one another – is crucial for STEM learning. There is substantial evidence that better spatial reasoning is linked to higher attainment in mathematics. There is also evidence that spatial reasoning can be taught, and that the early years are a particularly important time for developing spatial reasoning skills. It is therefore surprising that spatial reasoning is often overlooked in early childhood curricula. Expectations for shape and space learning have recently been removed from the mathematics early learning goals for four- to five-year-olds in England, for example.

The spatial reasoning toolkit

In our recent project with fellow members of the Early Childhood Mathematics Group, we surveyed education professionals working in England with children from birth to seven years and ran focus groups. The educators reported that they regularly use a range of spatial activities in their practice and are typically able to identify the spatial elements in these activities. However, more than half of the respondents to our survey were not confident in their understanding of spatial reasoning, and very few had received any training on how to develop children’s spatial skills. They told us that they would welcome resources to assist them in their efforts to help children develop the full range of spatial skills.

“Children need time and freedom to move and explore.”

Using their feedback, we have refined and extended our evidence-based spatial reasoning toolkit. It is aimed at professionals with varied levels of experience working with children of different ages, in a range of settings. Below are our top six messages for practice in areas that are the highest priorities for professional development, according to the educators who participated in our survey. Each includes suggestions for activities, which can also be useful for parents.

1. Use and enhance the physical environment for spatial learning

Children need time and freedom to move and explore. Spatial abilities develop alongside motor development, with new spatial opportunities afforded by being able to sit, crawl, and walk. Give the youngest children rug or floor time where they can move without restriction, and give older children time outdoors to run, jump, roll, crawl, and hide. Varied environments that include interesting spaces to move around and navigate allow children to experience the world from different heights and perspectives.

2. Use gestures and spatial words to support spatial concept formation

Children are better able to build an understanding of spatial concepts when they have words for them. They learn the meaning of spatial words by hearing them used in context, for example hearing ‘up’ when they get picked up. Children learn spatial words more easily when the words are accompanied by appropriate gestures, especially if they are used consistently. To illustrate ‘small’, for instance, you might put your hands close together. You can also use your hands to trace the outline of shapes, highlighting their properties, and gesture actions, like rotating a jigsaw piece. Encourage children to use spatial words and gestures themselves as they mature.

Children learn spatial words more easily when the words are accompanied by appropriate gestures.”

3. Draw children’s attention to the spatial properties of objects

Sand and water play provide excellent opportunities for exploring the spatial properties of objects. Encourage children to select and experiment with a variety of containers based on their shape and to determine how much they will hold and how full they are. Use scaled containers of the same shape but different sizes as well as multiple containers with the same capacity but very different shapes to challenge spatial thinking. Model making choices based on estimating which of two containers will hold more or is better for a particular job.

4. Encourage children to use and make simple maps and models

Maps and models use scale to provide smaller representations of people, places, objects, and landmarks so we can choose routes, estimate distances, understand spatial relationships and locations, and create imaginary worlds. Discuss photographs of familiar places, and provide opportunities for small-world play with toy figures, vehicles, and animals, helping children connect their small-scale representation to the real-world equivalent and think about differences in perspectives. Help younger children draw roads and landmarks for the toys as a first step towards map-making. Encourage older children, from around 4 years, to create and use their own simple maps. Map-making is facilitated by their developing sense of scale and navigation abilities (finding their way).

5. Represent number in spatial ways

Many representations of number are spatial. A staircase representation of number emphasises the ‘one more’ pattern of the number system, which can be demonstrated by building with toy blocks . The distance between two numbers on a number line represents the relationship between the numbers. Help children arrange numbers spatially, working out where 5 will go on a 0 to 10 number line, for example. Children can peg numeral cards on a washing line or cut up a number line to make a simple jigsaw puzzle.    

6. Support spatial learning across the curriculum

Use opportunities to work in different scales, heights, and environments across the curriculum. In the context of many different activities, you can help children make models, work on large sheets of paper, map ideas, interpret diagrams, engage in visualisation, and use spatial words.

To find out more about spatial reasoning and supportive practices, explore the guidance document, videos, and posters in the spatial reasoning toolkit.

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