Spatial Learning in Early Childhood Development

In a previous blog post I talked about the importance of spatial learning in relationship to our interactions and perception of the surrounding world. Piaget outlined the importance of spatial perception in his 1948 book, The Child’s Conception of Space. In his book he discusses the importance of mental visualization to a child’s development as they begin to interact with the world around them. An infant is continuously interacting with their surroundings, developing an intimate understanding of location, distance, motion, direction, and balance over time.

As children begin their school-based education, the construction of mental representations quickly becomes an important part of concept formations in a variety of areas such as reading, mathematics, and especially science. The question, then, is how do we develop a “spatially enriched environment” that promotes spatial learning in early childhood education over time? There has been some interesting research in this area over the last decade. Nora Newcombe and her Spatial Intelligence Learning Center (SILC) at Temple University (www.spatiallearning.org) has provided a significant number of activities directly related to early childhood education. If you are interested, their website would certainly be a good place to start your search.

Much of the early childhood work in this area has dealt directly with spatial language. Research has shown that increased use of spatial language, both in the classroom and at home, has a significant impact on a child’s early spatial ability. Words such as slide, rotate, and flip, as well as top, bottom, left, and right are used by children to describe an object’s placement and location. This spatial language around locations, shapes, objects, and perspective is how we all begin to form memories using mental maps and internal transformations as we begin to learn how to navigate the physical world. Research has shown that the development of these spatial skills through language is an important step in childhood development as they begin to learn, and has direct connections to early scientific and mathematical thinking. To develop spatial skills in early education, I am not recommending that we must reinvent the wheel, but instead be conscious of the language, manipulatives, and games that we currently use in early childhood development. Spatial language development can easily be embedded within puzzle play, pattern matching, or block building to provide a rich environment for spatial learning. Raising the awareness of spatial language during play for both teachers and parents can make a significant difference in the development of a child’s spatial ability long before the start of their formal education.

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