Spatial Skills and Early Math Ability

Adapted from Verdine, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, Filipowicz, & Chang, 2014

Spatial skills are not only important in their own right, but also for math skills. Preschoolers’ block assembly skills and spatial awareness relate to their early math skills. In one study, researchers provided 3-year-olds with building blocks of different sizes. They asked children to use a model to build the same structure with blocks. Looking at the size, location, rotation, and position of each block was necessary to copy the model. They also tested children’s early math skills. For example, children counted as high as they could without a mistake.

Preschoolers’ scores on the block assembly task were related to their math performance at age 3. In particular, children’s ability to count aloud related to their spatial skills. Counting seemed to help children select blocks of the same size and place them in the correct position. It’s likely they counted the “studs” on top of the blocks to determine where each piece should go. Playing with blocks builds children’s understanding of number and more complex math skills.

Research also supports a link between spatial and math skills over time. Children’s spatial skills at age 3 predicted their math skills at age 5. And, early spatial skills were a stronger predictor of later math ability than other early math skills, like counting. These findings suggest that the skills required for spatial and math tasks overlap. Spatial play not only supports spatial skill development, but also general math ability.

  • Direction and movement
    refers to the path along which a person or object moves
    Shape awareness
    is the ability to recognize and identify shapes
    Space and position
    refers to the relationship between objects
    Spatial awareness
    includes understanding shape, size, space, position, direction, and movement
    Spatial language
    refers to words that describe the location of objects in space
    Spatial thinking
    is a set of mental skills that we use to reason about the shape, size, position, direction, and movement of objects