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ECE Resources

Spatial skills

Type 1: Spatial visualisation
Transforming and reproducing mental images of objects 

1 How to spot this skill being applied in free play

Talk

  • The child may talk about recreating an object/scene from memory or from a picture (E.g., ‘I’m going to build my house with these blocks’, or ‘Let’s build the car from this picture [on the Lego box]’)

Behaviour

  • Copying and recreating existing visual models or models from memory using blocks (E.g., building a house or a car from memory or a picture in a book) or other construction materials (e.g., drawing/representing people or other objects with crayons, shape cutouts).

2 Check for understanding

  • Copying block designs: Show children a model block construction and have them recreate it with their own set of blocks (including arrangements of blocks of the same and alternating colors).
  • Mental transformation: Children view a decomposed (e.g., cut-in-half) or simply rotated version of a model shape and must match the model with its transformed/ rotated version (e.g., cut duplicates of various shapes out of paper, and cut one set in half in various ways. Then choose an intact square and have children match it with the correct cut-up shapes). 

3 Guided activities to support this skill

Copying models with building blocks/Lego: This activity requires children to mentally imagine and recreate a model. As children try out different combinations and configurations of blocks, they also gain experience rotating and aligning them to fit their spatial features and properties, (e.g., edges and corners) together and maintain structural integrity and stability. 

Fixing shapes: In this activity, children gain experience composing and decomposing shapes. This can be done with magnetic shapes like Magformers (e.g., creating and taking apart rectangles using two squares), food cutting sets (assembling and cutting food-shaped items), or using cookie cutters and popsicle sticks to create and cut shapes with playdough.

Shape sorter/Tetris/Puzzles: Playing with toys like shape sorters and puzzles (both jigsaws and Tangram) and games like Tetris requires children to visualise the orientation of an object that will allow it to fit into a specific destination. Teachers can guide children to engage in planning before they even practise placing the object in its destination by using spatial language emphasising the spatial features, properties, and dimensions of the shape and the destination, as well as whether and in what ways rotation of the shape is needed. 

Origami/Paper folding: see example activities

Type 2: Form perception/Shape knowledge
Recognising and creating shapes/figures and distinguishing them from other shapes, figures, and symbols

1 How to spot this skill being applied in free play

Talk

  • During play, children might attempt to label shapes they see in their environment (e.g., ‘I’ve got a square block’, and ‘the roof of the house is a triangle’)

Behaviour

  • Children often attempt to group like items by shape, either for the purpose of sorting them (placing all the square blocks in one pile, and rectangle blocks in another), or when creating a design scheme while building (e.g., using only square blocks to create a structure).

2 Check for understanding

Spatial skills
  • Match the model: Ask children to find a corresponding shape or figure amongst distractors. Show children a square and then have them find the corresponding square amongst other non-square shapes such as triangles, circles and stars.
  • Shape identification: ask children to identify all the triangles, squares, and rhombuses amongst pictures of shapes including distractors. The selection of shapes should include different variants of the same shape (including uncommon forms of shapes such as isosceles, scalene, and right-angled triangles) and non-shapes (e.g., broken shapes, triangles with curved sides).

3 Guided activities to support this skill

  • Pattern blocks: One way to scaffold children’s form perception skills is by using pattern block activities such as this one. In this activity, children can be guided to identify shapes in each picture and choose the corresponding shape in block form. Once they have selected a shape, they can place it on the picture to check their accuracy. Upon mastery, they can either advance to more challenging pattern block sets or recreate their patterns separate from the picture boards themselves (e.g., on the table next to them).
  • Shape sorting: Practise sorting different variants of the same shape (including uncommon forms of shapes such as isosceles, scalene, right triangles) and non-shapes (e.g., broken shapes, triangles with curved sides). This exercise illustrates that there are many variations of the same shape, and reveals what makes something a particular shape. Try sorting different shapes by common properties (e.g., number of sides/angles)
  • Shape identification: Children can be guided to recognise model shapes as they exist in everyday life. Shown a square during circle time, children can be guided around the classroom to identify shapes on posters, in play materials, in carpet designs, and on their clothing. They might also be sent on a scavenger hunt around the classroom or playground to find objects of particular shapes to then share with the class.

Type 3: Visual-spatial working memory
The ability to remember and actively reproduce the locations and direction of objects

1 How to spot this skill being applied in free play

Behaviour

  • When children play follow-the-leader, they actively watch for and copy where the leader goes (e.g., jump right, then left). 
  • When playing Simon Says children remember and reproduce the leader’s body movements on the correct side of the body (e.g., raising your right hand, lifting your left leg). Note: this game also incorporates talk about locations of body movements.

2 Check for understanding

  • Pathspan  (an app on iTunes) is one measure used to assess children’s visual-spatial working memory. Children must watch green buttons light up in different orders and then touch those buttons in the same or opposite order. A variation that can be requested shows a frog face appearing on the green circles or ‘lilypads’. 
  • Another (harder-to-track) method involves arranging blocks in a grid, having children watch you tap different blocks in a specific order, and having children repeat your tapping in the same or opposite order.

3 Guided activities to support this skill

  • Playing memory games in which children must remember the order and orientation of a series of objects or pictures has been shown to help with visual-spatial working memory. This activity can be digital (e.g., Simon), or use printed pictures of items. As children master remembering the location (e.g., first, second, third, etc.) and orientation (e.g., upside down or right side up) of smaller sets of objects or events, teachers can increase the number of objects/locations children must remember. It is usually important to test children twice for every number of objects they are required to remember.

By Dr Erica Zippert

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Dr Erica Zippert

Dr Erica Zippert is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Purdue University. She studies young children’s broad mathematics development and how it is supported during social and playful interactions with parents and peers in a variety of informal contexts. She also examines the roles of context (traditional activities/games as well as digital apps/eBooks, activity goals), and parent and child factors (parental beliefs, child math abilities and interests) in determining the quality of early math experiences and subsequent math learning.