Spatial Thinking - Empowering Children to Succeed in STEM

Researchers have discovered a key predictor of how well a child will perform in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities as they get older.

And perhaps more importantly, they've learned what parents and teachers can do to help children improve in this area.

Do you know what this key skill is and how we can better empower our children to succeed in STEM?

Boy thinking about math and science

Spatial Intelligence

Children can improve their brain's STEM abilities by developing what is called "Spatial Intelligence" or "Spatial Thinking".

What is it?

Spacial thinking is what our brain does when it visualizes objects - especially three-dimensional objects - in our "mind's eye".

Think of it as the intersection of imagination and intelligence. Spatial thinking represents our amazing brain's ability to understand our environment and model changes to that environment, or the contents within, all inside our mind.

Why is it so important?

Studies show that spatial thinking is a key predictor of a child's future achievement in STEM (Wai et al 2009; Uttal et al 2013), and yet unfortunately the development of this skill is often neglected at school.

Children who are skilled at visualizing spatial relationships tend to develop stronger arithmetic abilities in primary school (Zhang et al 2014; Gilligan et al 2017; Verdine et al 2017).

Middle school students who are skilled at mental rotation are more likely to be successful in science classes (Ganley et al 2014).

Evidence also suggests that spatial ability during young ages can predict a child's reading skills (Franceschini et al 2012).

Since spatial thinking is so important to a child's brain development, why is it so often neglected in our homes and schools? We believe this is due to a lack of awareness about its importance.

So let's take a moment to better understand this concept.

You can experience spatial thinking right now!

Close your eyes and visualize a simple block of wood in your mind.

Got it? Can you see the block in your imagination? Now rotate the object in your mind's eye, or imagine walking around it. Envision as much detail as you can. (Take your time to do this exercise completely. It's worth it.)

Can your brain envision what the block looks like from all sides as it rotates? If light is coming from a single source (like the sun in the sky) then do the shadows change as you rotate the object in your mind? Can you imagine reaching down, picking up the object, and tossing it in the air? What did it look like as it hit the ground? Could you fit it in a backpack? How about your pocket?

OK, you get the point. If you just did this exercise, you experienced first hand what it is like for your brain to flex its spacial intelligence muscles! How did it feel? Was it easy or hard? Does your brain feel tired like it had a workout?

Improving a Brain's Spatial Intelligence

Don't be one of those people who think that spatial intelligence cannot be improved, or that it's determined only by genetics or gender. That's not only incorrect, but the thought itself will limit your efforts to improve spatial thinking in yourself or your children.

Various studies have shown that people can improve their spatial intelligence with practice, sometimes in very significant ways (Feng et al 2008; Wright et al 2008; DeLisi et al 2002; Cherney et al 2014).

A child's potential to improve.

For example, a research team led by Sharlene Newman divided a large class of 8 year old children into two groups:

  • Group A spent time building with toy blocks (attempting to recreate structures shown in photos)
  • Group B spent the same amount of time playing Scrabble, an educational word game.

The children's brains were scanned (fMRI brain scans) while spatial tests were administered before and after their play time. Here are the results:

Kids who'd participated in the structured toy block playtime (Group A) showed significant improvements in spatial thinking abilities, while the Scrabble group (Group B) showed no improvement in spatial testing. Group A also showed positive brain scan results, exhibiting more activity in spatial processing and spatial working memory brain regions (Newman et al 2016).

The bottom line is that activities such as structured block play (e.g., recreating physical structures seen in photos or in person) have created positive results in a child's spatial intelligence, which is linked to STEM success.

Let's Help Our Children Succeed!

Children who are empowered to succeed in STEM-related activities are well-positioned for success as they get older. And research tells us that spatial intelligence is a key component of STEM abilities.

But are the current activities our children engage in - such as spending time on screens (which are two-dimensional) - helping them improve their spatial thinking?

We believe spending more time in the digital world (through screens) has distracted many children from engaging in the physical world. Our amazing human brain evolved in the natural world, and that is where it can best develop. By finding fun and engaging activities for our children to enjoy, we can inspire them to turn their screens off and empower them to succeed as smart, spatial thinkers.

Our children deserve the best. So let's make it happen! We invite you to join the movement by contacting us or subscribing to our newsletter (see the bottom of this page).

A healthy brain is a happy brain!

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