Do you know a kiddo who can assemble a Lego set in the blink of an eye? Tells the bus driver how to find his street? Helps you design your bulletin boards to perfection?
What do these seemingly nice-to-have but not particularly useful skills have in common? They are all reflections of a student’s spatial perception. And while we might not ask students to apply spatial skills very often in school, spatial skills are essential for careers in engineering, advanced mathematics, robotics, and design.
What’s more, spatial skills have a unique role in the development of creativity. Many researchers believe that superior spatial skills are the “X factor” that separates creative geniuses like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Frank Lloyd Wright from the rest of us.
If spatial skills are so important, why do they get short shrift in schools?
The short answer is timing. Schools must prioritize foundational skills before students can progress to higher order thinking and problem solving. Spatial perception is more central to the latter. As a result, teachers might not recognize students’ spatial gifts until late in their academic careers. Often too late to effectively nurture these skills.
- In math, students can be top performers in arithmetic, word problems and algebra, with spatial skills playing a minimal factor.
- Early science classes are more focused on understanding abstract concepts (e.g. environment and biology) than applying visual-spatial concepts (e.g. chemistry and physics). Even in the science lab, students will be praised more for a good hypothesis and conclusion than for the precision of their data.
- Humanities? If there’s not much focus on geography or required dioramas, spatial skills might never be a factor.
It’s easy to see how students could easily make it all the way to high school geometry before there’s any recognition of their spatial strengths and challenges.
How schools can nurture spatial strengths
Nurturing spatial strengths can be key to developing self-confidence and a love of learning in students who might otherwise have less interest in school. If your students have a hidden gift in spatial perception, these electives and extra-curricular activities can be great options:
Art Classes. Find a medium (or two) the student loves and encourage them to pursue it. Painting, drawing, mixed media, photography and pottery. All of these arts use spatial perception. Have an older student? Consider a class in architecture.
Design. Spatial perception is likely to be core to any skill that has design in the title. Have a student that loves computers? Provide projects in digital design.
Sports. The greatest athletes not only have athletic ability but usually uncanny spatial abilities. They know precisely where to throw the ball or where to stand to take the shot. Coaches can encourage these exceptional students, even if their physical abilities don’t match up.
Other options for nurturing spatial skills in school.
Activities to develop spatial skills
All students can strengthen spatial skills. Improving spatial skills will help students in higher level math, science, and everyday activities. These can be great options for the classroom and at home.
Dance. Dance and movement classes can help younger students develop a greater awareness of spatial skills in a fun way. Find ways to incorporate them into the classroom. Square dancing, hip hop, or just simple follow-the-leader can all be engaging.
Sketch 3-D Objects Sketching 3-D objects can create awareness of spatial relations, regardless of your drawing ability. Often teachers can find time to do this in elementary or middle school classrooms.
Jigsaw Puzzles Start a puzzle and let students work on it in their free time. Discuss your thinking aloud as you choose a piece and put it in place, such as why you might start with the outside pieces first to make sense of relative space.
Find more activities to develop spatial skills.
Classroom Games to Develop Spatial Skills
There are many great games that develop spatial skills. Keep these for free time in your classroom or encourage parents to have them at home.
Architecto Build 3-D models using 18 blocks. Six levels of difficulty provide a challenge for students of all ability levels.
Doodle Dice An unusual multi-player game that has students replicate cute doodle drawings based on the roll of the dice.
Q-Bitz This four-person game challenges players to be the first to replicate the pattern using 16 dice.
Brainspin A multi-player card game that encourages players to think creatively and flexibly with simple shapes.
Find many, many more games to develop spatial skills.
Is your school one-to-one? Browse these digital spatial games or encourage parents to get them for home.
Spatial skills, like most cognitive skills, might not be readily observable. If you’re interested in learning more about your students’ spatial skills click here. Email us for information on school subscriptions.