What role does spatial thinking play in STEM?

Improving STEM skills by promoting the development of children’s spatial ability
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Thinking about objects and how they relate to one another is an important contributor to success in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Teachers can help children to develop these skills by integrating spatial thinking into the curriculum.

We use our spatial abilities every day – fitting items into a cupboard, putting shoes on the correct feet, negotiating around furniture, and giving directions. Spatial ability involves perceiving the location, dimensions and properties of objects and their relationships to one another. In recent years, it has become clear that spatial ability is important for mastering Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) content. Indeed, spatial ability in childhood correlates with mathematics success, and predicts STEM expertise in adulthood.

Understanding spatial relationships is one key spatial skill in STEM. In science, for example, illustrations depict DNA sequences, cells and the solar system, while the periodic table shows the relationships between elements. In engineering, they show electronic configurations. In mathematics, graphs help us visualise patterns of data. Furthermore, Geologists use topographical maps to extract 3D information from 2D information, whilst expert knowledge of 3D anatomical structures and how they are connected to one another is vital for the study of medicine.

“We have demonstrated correlations and relationships over time between spatial ability and mathematics and science in primary school children.”

Spatial skills are highly malleable. A meta-analysis of studies that sought to train spatial ability showed that spatial training is effective, durable, transferable, and particularly beneficial for young children. Research from my lab supports those findings. We have demonstrated correlations and relationships over time between spatial ability and mathematics and science in primary school children. We have also shown that spatial training improves mathematical achievement, with further work underway. These associations suggest that spatial training is also likely to improve children’s science abilities.

Spatial ability in school

Despite the importance of spatial ability, at least in England, the current mathematics curricula place little emphasis on the development of these skills. The Early Learning Goal of “Shape, Space and Measure” in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum (birth to age 5) is to be removed in the coming academic year, and the most recent “ready-to-progress criteria” for primary school mathematics make no reference at all to spatial thinking (with the exception of shape naming).

“Spatial thinking risks not being prioritised, particularly if it does not feature in assessments and if teachers are unaware of opportunities to integrate it into their curricula.”

The EYFS framework states: “… it is important that the curriculum includes rich opportunities for children to develop their spatial reasoning skills across all areas of mathematics.” Yet spatial thinking risks not being prioritised, particularly if it does not feature in assessments and if teachers are unaware of opportunities to integrate it into their curricula.

How to incorporate spatial thinking into the classroom

Teachers can use spatial language, gestures, visualisation, maps, diagrams and graphs to spatialise primary school curricula. Exposing children to spatial words such as “between”, “around”, “left”, and “right” can strengthen their spatial skills. Teachers can select books that use a lot of spatial language, such as “Rosie’s Walk”, and explicitly include spatial language in lesson plans. Spatial language comprehension can be supported by using hand gestures to demonstrate size or length, and arm positions to illustrate difficult concepts such as “slope” or “horizontal”. Gestures work well because they are themselves spatial, and so easily augment the information provided by a word and facilitate the learning of new words.

At playtime, teachers can give children opportunities to create and use scaled toys. This encourages the development of spatial scale and perspective taking, skills that are associated with mathematics and science achievement. When children are playing with construction toys, encouraging them to consult pictorial instructions frequently will help to develop their visualisation skills. This is because guided play elicits more spatial language than free play, and children with more advanced spatial skills make use of pictorial instructions more often.

“Using shape outlines to show where toys should be put away shows children the shapes of real objects, and provides opportunities for children to use mental transformation.”

Teachers can also design their classrooms to create opportunities for spatial thinking. For example, signs made of irregular rather than regular shapes draw children’s attention to the defining features of shape categories, encouraging spatial language. Furthermore, using shape outlines to show where toys should be put away shows children the shapes of real objects, and provides opportunities for children to use mental transformation. For example, the child will mentally rotate a toy car to make it fit onto its outline when tidying up.

With the Early Childhood Maths Group (ECMG), we have developed an openly available spatial toolkit. The toolkit is intended for practitioners and teachers of children from birth to 7 years and will be augmented over the coming year. The toolkit enables users to use formal, structured tools as well as informal resources created by children and teachers, in order to embed spatial teaching strategies into the curricula.

Spatial training is clearly effective and has long-lasting benefits. But there are still gaps in our knowledge. Most studies of children have concentrated on the association between spatial thinking and mathematics, with little emphasis on other STEM subjects. Furthermore, there have been very few studies of the impact of spatial training in the early years, and we know little about the durability of such training. Similarly, although studies have shown that parental spatial language is important for children’s spatial development, there has been no research into teachers’ spatial language. Over the next decade, we will attempt to gain insight into all these things and more. I hope this research has a positive impact in the classroom, ultimately improving children’s spatial abilities and their STEM skills.

Please keep an eye on the ECMG website for news of this exciting project, and if you would like to help us pilot our toolkit, please get in touch.

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