Spatial Skills : How to Grow Young Minds Into STEM-Ready Thinkers

What do Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Watson & Crick have in common? In addition to fathering contributions that fundamentally altered our understanding of the universe, each of these great thinkers relied heavily on spatial reasoning to facilitate their respective breakthroughs.

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Although strength in spatial skills is correlated with future achievement in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Uttal et al. 2013), having an aptitude for spatial thinking can be a curse as well as a gift; Typical classrooms are not equipped to recognize and support the learning strategies of visual-spatial thinkers, and as a result, spatially gifted students are often marginalized.

Spatial skill training offers these spatially-oriented learners the opportunity to shine, while simultaneously developing improved spatial understanding and skills in students of all learning types (Terlecki, Newcombe, and Little, 2008).

Developing spatial skills in children prepares them for later success in STEM careers

Understanding Spatial Skills

Spatial ability is the ability to understand relationships between objects in space and visually manipulate their positions relatively, for instance through mental rotation. It is a unique type of intelligence, distinct from memory, reasoning, and verbal skills.

However, while testing for spatial skills does exist, many standardized tests and IQ test fail to give this type of intelligence the weight it deserves or overlook it entirely. Spatial aptitude in children therefore often goes unrecognized.

According to world-renowned developmental psychologist and author of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner, “an education which treats everybody the same way is absolutely the most unfair education”. Yet, visual-spatial thinkers are still being taught via traditional means that aren’t universally effective.

Yet another consideration in teaching spatial skills to children is the well-documented but poorly understood discrepancy in spatial reasoning aptitude between genders (Voyer et al. 1995), with boys typically outperforming girls, especially in the areas of spatial visualization and mental rotation. This could correlate with the disproportionately high number of men we see in STEM-related career fields today.

The good news is that spatial skills can be developed through practice (Uttal et al. 2013), and doing so could lead to more women working in the STEM fields, and a greater utilization of the abundance of talented thinkers that are currently being overlooked due to rigid and unadaptable teaching methodologies.

In order to accommodate the variation that exists among learning styles and genders, it is our duty as educators to implement new teaching strategies that allow all students to flourish. The options for visual-spatial education opportunities are expanding, and we at Brackitz are proud to be on the leading edge of that solution.


The Importance of Spatial Skill Development

Albert Einstein formulated his theories of relativity after mentally subjecting himself a battery of hypothetical scenarios, including imagining chasing a beam of light. He also used his imagination to visually solve complex mathematical proofs, such as the Pythagorean theorem. Leonardo Di Vinci illustrated a car motor, which proved to be fully functional when it was built into a working wooden model centuries later. And Gustave Eiffel wouldn’t have been able to design the famous tower in Paris to which he gave his last name had it not been for his ability to creatively visualize.

None of these feats would be possible without vivid visual-spatial processing. But giving children the opportunity to develop their spatial skills has other benefits more immediate than the career-crowning achievements stated above. For instance, studies show that spatial processing abilities are closely correlated with future success across a variety of careers, including jobs within the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Uttal et al. 2013). 

The evidence for mathematical ability improving as a result of spatial skill training is especially overwhelming: Studies have linked having a “number sense” with spatial thinking (Newcombe et al. 2015), and Mix and Cheng go as far as to say that “The relation between spatial ability and mathematics is so well established that it no longer makes sense to ask whether they are related” (Mix & Cheng, 2012).

Aside from the positive impact spatial skills development has on math skills and STEM-related skills overall, this type of training also gives girls especially a chance to develop skills and compete in areas of work typically dominated by men.

Additionally, teaching concepts using a spatial-skills approach offers an alternative to using words, effectively removing language as a barrier to learning. This allows ESL students and students with language learning disabilities such as dyslexia to join in equally. There have even been instances in which developmentally disabled children have experienced improvements in their ability to communicate verbally after taking a spatial learning approach to developing math skills.


Improving Spatial Skills in Children

Spatial skills training techniques are versatile and can be applied across various academic subjects using a wide variety of methods. This makes incorporating the training principles into existing curriculum simple and effective for teachers and students alike. 

One exciting way to introduce spatial learning concepts to children is through the use of constructing systems. Constructing systems are any set of components that children can physically manipulate to build various shapes, designs, and structures. They allow children to solve math and engineering problems in a way that is fun, experiential, and gives immediate feedback.

The downside of the majority of constructing systems is that they lack flexibility of connectivity - there are only so many ways you can stack blocks or click two standard building pieces together. This narrows the parameters of what can be made, forcing children to build within a specific mold and limiting the opportunity for creativity and learning.

Brackitz was designed to transcend these limitations. Due its unique connectivity capabilities and design, Brackitz allows children an endless variety of ways to express themselves through adjusting length, and using rotation and odd angles. Because Brackitz components offer children a fluid range of possibilities for where to attach pieces and how to orient the positioning of each piece, the opportunities for 3D creation and problem solving become truly unlimited.

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We already know that different children have different styles of learning. It’s the educator’s responsibility to provide technology that can "present material to a child in a way in which the child will find interesting”, as Howard Gardner states. An adaptable teaching strategy - coupled with the adaptability of Brackitz - allows children of all genders, language backgrounds, and learning types to not only internalize information in a way that works best for them, but also to "show his or her understanding in a way that’s comfortable to the child."

Aside from using constructing systems, another way to improve spatial ability in children is through the use of spatial language. Communicating with students using spatial terms and asking them to do the same gives them opportunities to flex the regions of their brain associated with spatial reasoning, and provides them with the vocabulary required to verbalize their thinking, which is shown to strengthen their understanding.

Vocabulary used to delineate spatial concepts includes words like above and below, bent and straight, spiralled and curved, as well as shape names such as triangle, cube, sphere, and prism. Getting kids involved in a spatially-stimulating discussion can be as simple as asking questions. For example:

“How many shapes can you count in the room - and what are they? Can you tell me where your cubby is without pointing to it? Do you think we can fit all of the Brackitz on the table into this box -- if not that box, what about this box?”

Asking students simple questions that require spatial reasoning and a verbal response gives them ample opportunity to mentally perform a spatial task while encouraging a follow-up conversation - both of which will help them develop as spatial thinkers.

Next Steps: Implementing Spatial Skills Training

As we see every day in every classroom, children are brimming with curiosity, intelligence, and creative potential. Yet there remains a dearth of opportunities for children to fully express that potential. Students that are primarily visual-spatial in their processing of information are overlooked by traditional teaching methods, and various other groups such as girls and those with language barriers are also put at a disadvantage by the lack of spatial skill training.

Evidence continues to mount about the benefits of training children’s spatial abilities, and we’re beginning to see the field of potential STEM candidates for what it is - largely untapped. Because of these changes, spatial skill development has now become impossible to ignore. Now that the importance of such an education has been recognized, the next step is to make visual-spatial development as readily accessible as possible.

The use of construction systems and spatial language offers teachers a versatile and effective way to demonstrate these concepts in a way that transcends the hurdles of learning styles, language barriers, gender, and areas of study. As we emerge from the more rigid teaching methods of the past into the infinite possibilities of spatial skills education, we are doing our part to open the doorways of imagination for our next generation of great thinkers.


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