How to Boost Visual Spatial Intelligence

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Visual spatial intelligence is crucial in many academic and professional fields. Despite the importance, it is rarely included in kindergarten or elementary curriculum. But we can help our children improve their visual spatial skills through simple activities.

In fact, everyone can improve their spatial reasoning through training and practice. Find out how in this article.

What Is Spatial Thinking / Spatial Intelligence?

Spatial thinking, or spatial reasoning, concerns the positions of objects, their shapes, their spatial relations to one another and the movement they make. It involves understanding and remembering the relative locations of objects in the mind. Then through imagining or visualizing, objects are manipulated through mental movement or transformation to form new spatial relations.

Visual spatial intelligence is the ability to perform spatial thinking.

Here is an example where spatial reasoning is used.

In the following prism test, can you tell when 1 is folded to form a triangular prism, which of the followings (2-5) can be produced?

Spatial reasoning prism test

To come up with the answer, you need to mentally form a picture of the prism being folded. While doing it, you need to keep track of the relative positions of the different colored sides.

Answer: 2 and 3 are both correct.

The Importance Of Visual Spatial Skills

We use visual spatial skills frequently in day-to-day functioning.

A child imagines where a toy is inside his bedroom before walking into the room to get it.

When we pack our luggage, we visualize how different items can fit together to maximize the storage capacity.

To put together an easy-to-assemble furniture, we need to match the two-dimensional diagrams to the three-dimensional furniture parts.

Visual Spatial Skills And Math

Spatial skills are particularly important to mathematics learning.

  • A student creates a mental geometric object that can be measured, moved, and transformed to facilitate geometric calculation and pattern recognition.
  • A mathematician uses visual spatial thinking to enhance number sense, quantity comparison, and arithmetic.

Many studies have found that high visual spatial ability is linked to better math performance.

Early Spatial Skills Education

Early education plays a large role in preparing our children for later success. Preschoolers’ spatial skills can predict their future performance in math learning in middle and high school.

As children’s first teachers, parents can start teaching young children, even toddlers, the basics of spatial thinking.

It is not too early to start familiarizing your toddler, boy or girl, with spatial thinking.

Neuroscientists find that specific regions in the brain responsible for thinking about location and spatial relationships develop in very early childhood. Infants as young as 4 months have been found to demonstrate abilities related to mental rotation.

Furthermore, spatial reasoning skills are cumulative and durable.

Those who master the skills in early childhood will have more opportunities to use it to acquire and organize additional information throughout their lives. So the earlier the education, the larger and longer lasting the improvement.


How To Improve Visual Spatial Intelligence

1. Use Spatial Language In Everyday Interactions

Parents can help children improve spatial intelligence by using more spatial terms in everyday interaction.

Spatial language is a powerful spatial learning tool. Babies learn better when the spatial relations are given names. Preschoolers whose parents use more spatial words (such as triangle, big, tall or bent) perform better in spatial tests than those whose parents do not use such language.

Here are some example spatial terms that can be added to daily interactions.

Type of TermsDescriptionsExamples
ShapeMathematical names that describe two- and three-dimensional objects and spaces.square, circle, sphere, triangle, pentagon
Dimensional adjectivesTerms that describe the sizeof spaces, objects and people.large, small, long, short, big, tiny, tall
Spatial featuresTerms that describe the features and properties of two- and three-dimensional spaces, objects and people.Straight, bent, curvy, corner, side, line, corner, pointy, sharp, edge
Spatial relationsTerms that describe the relative positions of space, objects and people.inside, outside, under, around, corner, on top of, at the bottom of, in front of, behind, diagonal, across

But don’t just speak at your child to teach spatial terms.

Ask your child to repeat the words back to you and explain what they mean. Encourage your child to use those terms, too. Kids who can use more spatial terms are found to perform better in spatial reasoning tasks.

2. Teach Using Gestures And Encourage Kids To Gesture

Gesture is a powerful communicating and teaching tool. Researches show that children often learn better when gestures are used by teachers than when speech is used alone. Gesture is also closely linked to spatial thinking. It promotes a focus on spatial information in speech.

Not only does gesture enhance the learning of spatial relations, it also plays an important role in exercising spatial reasoning.

A study has found that when children use gesturing to indicate movements of objects, their spatial reasoning ability improves. This improvement is also detected in children who do not spontaneously gesture but do so after being prompted to.

3. Teach Visualization

Visualization is using visual imagery to mentally represent an object not physically present. It is a powerful skill in spatial reasoning and problem solving.

Young children can be taught to use visualization to enhance their spatial thinking.

For example, young children often have “gravity bias”. In an experiment, when a ball drops, preschoolers tend to think that it will appear directly below, even if the ball drops down a twisted tube. But when they are instructed to visualize the path of the ball before answering, more kids got the right answer.

4. Play The Matching Game

Play the construction matching game.

Start by putting together a simple structure using building blocks and then ask the kids to match it in shape and in colors.

5. Build Structures In A Storytelling Context

Playing with building objects such as Lego and wooden blocks can substantially increase a child’s spatial thinking ability.

But you don’t need perfectly crafted toys. Even a few cereal boxes or toilet paper rolls can be used to stack and build interesting structures.

Give them a problem to solve. A study show that when block building activities are carried out in a storytelling context, children’s spatial thinking improves more.

6. Do Tangram And Non-Jigsaw Spatial Puzzles

Tangram is an ancient Chinese puzzles consisting of 7 pieces. The pieces can be rearranged into many different shapes such as animals, people or objects. It is a teaching tool that has been proven to increase students’ spatial ability.

Jigsaw puzzle has been recommended by many sources to help increase children’s spatial ability. It is probably because a study finds that preschoolers who play puzzles perform better in a mental transformation spatial task than those who don’t. It also finds that the more frequently the child plays, they better they perform.

No doubt, there is a strong association between puzzle solving and spatial intelligence. However, no controlled studies have been found to establish a causal relationship between them.

The problem with jigsaw puzzles is that, unlike tangram, there is only one fixed way to fit the pieces together. A study has found that preschoolers who have played with a single-solution puzzle are less innovative and flexible in subsequent problem solving than children who have played with a multiple-solution block set.

It appears that singe-solution puzzles are inferior toys to multiple-solution puzzles when it comes to kids’ creativity.

7. Expose To Map Reading

Map reading can help children acquire abstract concepts of space and the ability to think systematically about spatial relations that are not otherwise experienced directly in the physical world.

Maps present spatial information that differs from direct experience navigating the world. Children learn to think about multiple large-scale spatial relations among different locations in a concrete way.

8. Read Spatially Challenging Books

Books such as Zoom and Re-Zoom are great picture books that can draw children into a world of visualization and spatial thinking. The increasing level of details helps illustrate the different spatial relations among objects.

When reading these books with the kids, parent can enhance the spatial learning by verbal explanation and gestures. Research shows that such support from parents is linked to children’s higher spatial scores.

9. Play Video Games Such As Tetris

Playing spatial video games such as Marble Madness or Tetris, have shown to be beneficial to children’s spatial intelligence. The improvement is more pronounced in low-ability kids.

More Activities To Increase Visual Spatial Intelligence

If you are looking for more activities to increase your child’s (or your own) visual spatial intelligence, the following are less proven but still valid (and fun) ways to do so.

Explore Photography

Visual perspective taking is the ability to imagine how things look like from another viewpoint different from one’s own. Taking photos of objects at different angles can enhance children’s ability to take on different visual perspectives and recognize changes in scale.

Practice Paper Folding (Origami)

Mental paper folding has long been used to increase mental rotational ability.

Although no research is found to link physical paper folding to spatial intelligence, it is not far-fetched to believe that physical paper folding practice can enhance mental paper folding ability.

Learn To Play Music

Several researches have found that learning to make music can raise spatial-temporal ability.

Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to think of spatial relations that change through time. This skill allows you to mentally pack your luggage one item after another to see how to fit the most items.

Craft Activities

Here are more spatial relations activities for preschoolers.

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