Learning from Others – Nora Newcombe (Part 2)

In my last blog I introduced an expert researcher in the field of spatial reasoning, Dr. Nora Newcombe, and discussed the opportunity I had to interview her. Below are summaries of four of Dr. Newcombe’s articles that directly connect to our work and learning at the preschool level.

Building Blocks for Developing Spatial Skills

This study investigates and confirms the connection between children’s experiences in playful spatial activities and their spatial reasoning ability. Spatial ability was determined by using the Block Design subtest and general intelligence was determined by using the Full-scale IQ score. Parents were surveyed to gather data on children’s frequency in play with certain categories of toys and games. Controlling for ability and seeking to use a diverse sample, some interesting trends emerged. Gender differences are noted as boys outperformed girls in skills but also reported higher frequency with spatial-type activities. Children in higher socio-economic groups also outperformed children from lower socio-economic groups.(1)

Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills

The following three topics are the main focus of this research. The first is analyzing the spatial skills of 3 year olds which was accomplished by the design of a new test called Test Of Spatial Assembly (TOSA) using DUPLO LEGOs. The second is correlating the connection of spatial skills and mathematical ability. While these two areas are taught in isolation both share many overlapping skills. The final topic is the relation of spatial skills with that of gender, socio-economic status, and parental use of spatial language. Differences in this area were  especially noted between lower and high socioeconomic status corresponding to similar results for mathematics skills.(2)

Supporting Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Geometric Knowledge Through Guided Play

Geometric content is an important aspect of early learning mathematics. This research investigated the extent of impact that free play, guided play, and didactic instruction experiences may have around shape knowledge. Children ages 4 and 5 were exposed one of these types of experiences followed by a task. Results indicated that children in the guided play experiences revealed the greatest growth and retention of their shape knowledge. In contrast the didactic instruction seem to ingrain misconceptions instead of the geometric shape conceptions that were intended. Similarly, in free play children that engaged with mathematical material did not take opportunities to explore shape attributes or make any desired geometric connections.(3)

The Relation Between Spatial Thinking and Proportional Reasoning in Preschoolers

Continuing the work of other research that connects the importance of spatial reasoning to mathematical skills, this study seeks to investigate the correlation between mapping experiences and proportional reasoning. Focusing first on the topic of scaling, children 4 to 5 years of age were asked to locate an area on maps of various sizes. In the second experience, children were asked to estimate amounts of juice and water. Results indicate a correlation between a child’s ability to perform accurately in various scaling circumstances and his/her ability to accurately reason about proportional situations.(4)



1. Jirout, J., & Newcombe, N. (2015). Building Blocks for Developing Spatial Skills: Evidence From a Large, Representative U.S. Sample. Psychological Science, 26(3), 302-310.

2. Verdine, Brian N., Golinkoff, Roberta M., Hirsh-Pasek, Kathryn, Newcombe, Nora S., Filipowicz, Andrew T., & Chang, Alicia. (2014). Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschoolers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Development, 85(3), 1062-1076.

3. Fisher, K., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R. (2013). Taking Shape: Supporting Preschoolers’ Acquisition of Geometric Knowledge Through Guided Play. Child Development, 84(6), 1872-1878.

4. Möhring, Newcombe, & Frick. (2015). The relation between spatial thinking and proportional reasoning in preschoolers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,132, 213-220.

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