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UnderstandingSpatial Reasoning

Spatial Intelligence in Children

Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 12 Sep 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What is Spatial Reasoning in Childhood?

Spatial reasoning in childhood is the ability to learn and reason from visual data. 

Spatial reasoning involves using visual-spatial skills to see how something is supposed to look. These skills are like a game of ‘Tetris.’ People with good spatial skills can see many parts and understand how they should fit together. 

Some people are born with or develop strong spatial awareness. They learn from looking at things, not just from hearing information. 

A child with good visual-spatial skills can easily follow the directions when building a Lego set or a block tower. They can easily visualize information and understand and glean knowledge from charts, graphs, maps, artwork, etc. They may also do better in sports and athletics because they have an easier time seeing where the ball is and how to move their bodies toward it with quickness and agility.

Some of our understanding of spatial reasoning comes from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Spatial learning is one of Gardner’s intelligences. He said that the ways we classically understood cognitive ability left out many types of intelligence that were not related to verbal ability or verbal language skills and understanding. Having strong visual-spatial skills is its own kind of ability. 

Symptoms of Spatial Reasoning Issues in Children

  • Hard time with a Rubik’s Cube, a yo-yo, or a bouncy ball: your child does not visually follow and track the object in physical space
  • Not finding their state on a map or country on the globe: struggles with reading maps, graphs, or puzzles. Maybe your child would much rather read or talk than complete a puzzle. This preference may be evident very early in development.
  • Trouble sorting objects: your child struggles with putting like items together efficiently, again preferring verbal interaction, not drawn to math or shapes or puzzles. Perhaps visual aids do not help your child learn new things.
  • Confuses the right hand with the left hand: your child struggles to know right from left, you may see this extend to challenges with body awareness and with sports 
  • Gets lost in familiar places: your child may go for a bike ride or a walk and get lost coming home, get lost in their school building, or loses you in a store 
  • Not able to put an outfit together: your child’s clothes don’t match 

Causes of Spatial Reasoning Issues in Children

Problems with visual-spatial skills are likely due to issues in one of the following clinical areas: visual skills (like perception, planning, sequencing, tracking, or memory), central coherence, or attention [1-3]. 

That is, your child is either having trouble with “seeing it” (visual perception), understanding the concept or the big picture (central coherence), or being able to focus long enough to solve it (attention).

These visual skills are closely related, but it can be helpful to pinpoint where your child may have challenges.

Visual perception: This term refers to effectively recognizing and perceiving figures and shapes. For example, a child with poor visual perception may not see all the figures in the puzzle. Thus, they may not be able to reconstruct the design.

Visual planning: This term means seeing and figuring out the moves and steps it takes to solve a puzzle and seeing what something will look like when a move has been made. Problems might be evident when the child is playing chess. They may not be able to plan out a strategy or a series of moves that would trap the opponent or win the game.

Visual sequencing: This term means visually putting things in order. For example, your child may be trying to solve a dot-to-dot puzzle. The goal is to connect the dots in numerical order to form a figure. Crossword puzzles, word searches, or word scrambles require similar skills. In these puzzles, a person is asked to put letters in order to make words.

Visual tracking: This term means visually following words on a page as you read or following an object moving through space. This skill is required for reading and writing. If your child struggles with visual tracking, they might start reading at the wrong place on the page, lose their place a lot, and may even read right to left, rather than left to right.

Visual memory: This term means the ability to recall what has been observed with one’s eyes, such as the ability to remember familiar places and faces. Problems here might also be evident when your child is copying off the board. He may not be able to remember what he saw on the board long enough to copy it down.

Central coherence: This term describes the ability to assess part-to-whole relationships, which is the ability to know how all of the pieces fit together to make one coherent shape. This skill also requires the ability to get the main concept or the big idea. Problems here may be evident when your child is trying to describe a picture or tell you a story. Children with poor central coherence tend to forget to tell the main idea and get lost in the details.

Attention: This ability may be involved if your child has trouble with visual-spatial skills. It may be that your child gets stuck on one part of the puzzle and refuses to move on. This problem relates to mental flexibility, often called rigidity or insistence on sameness.

  • Shifting attention: This term means the ability to change focus back and forth between multiple things (visual stimuli).
  • Sustaining attention: This term means that your child struggles to solve the puzzle because they simply don’t stay with it long enough, which is a problem of sustained attention.

What to Do about Spatial Reasoning Issues in Childhood

DO make a visual: If your child is struggling with knowing left from right, put a graphic on a wall in your house where one side says right with an arrow, and the other says left. 

DO discuss how you are getting to places: When driving to the store, talk about what you notice and see and how those objects are located in space. For example, when going to Target, you may say, “Do you notice the donut shop on the left, two blocks straight ahead? See the stop sign that is on our route?” 

DO look at a map together: Take out a map and look at where things are located. Talk about locations, how a map works, and how to read a map. 

DO educate your child on shapes and sizes: Talk about the forms of household objects and share how different shapes have different sizes. For example, we have three different types of plates in our house. This one is bigger than this plate.  

DO make sure your child is active: Play ball with your child, help your child explore how their body moves in time and space. 

DO discuss personal space: Use hula hoops and string to share distance between people and how much space people need between them and another person. For example, you can talk about someone you are close with vs. an acquaintance vs. personal preference. 

DO put together a puzzle: As you put together the puzzle, comment on how the puzzle pieces fit together, the shape, color, location in space, etc. Graduate to increasingly more challenging puzzles and make this a fun family activity. Kids who struggle in this area will not gravitate towards these activities. Just as you would encourage reading and try to make that fun if your child disliked it, encourage puzzles and make them fun.

DO pack for a trip together: Demonstrate for your child how to pack items in their suitcase. Show them how you put like items together and pack for best efficiency. 

DO use verbal skills to compensate: Think about how your child can use solid verbal skills, reading skills, and memory to learn information that might be hard for them visually. They may be able to memorize facts on a table or graph, put together a song about where the states are on the map and use verbal learning strategies to help in areas like math and science, which could be more challenging because of the visual components.

DO discuss with your child’s teacher whether their STEM education is appropriate for your child’s abilities: Spatial intelligence may not be a strength for children who are more auditory learners and prefer reading and listening. STEM education is about learning focused on math, science, hands-on experimentation, and technology. It encourages children to develop critical thinking around visual learning. Children with logical-mathematical intelligence are often visual learners so this modality can work well for some children and adults. This kind of focus on STEM education could be a poor fit if your child struggles with spatial reasoning.

When to Seek Help for Spatial Reasoning Issues 

If your child struggles with puzzles, maps, and graphs, an underlying visual-spatial or cognitive deficit could be causing these problems.

However, parents would want to consider whether or not these personal weaknesses are ‘getting in the way’ before they make a decision about further assessment or treatment. 

For example, children with more significant struggles in these areas may have learning disabilities. In that case, they may require intervention or remediation. 

Children with extreme difficulties shifting or sustaining attention may have problems related to autism or ADHD and require treatment. Alternatively, a child with these challenges may prefer not to participate in some sports and may need help with map navigation at school or in town, but they might otherwise do just fine.

Further Resources on Spatial Reasoning

  • Physical Therapist (PT) or Occupational Therapist (OT): to look at fine and gross motor skills
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a context that may be related to visual-spatial problems, attention, or learning
  • Pediatrician: May refer to optometrist or ophthalmologist: may be necessary to check child’s vision

Similar Conditions to Spatial Reasoning Challenges in Childhood

  • Coordination: children with spatial reasoning issues may also struggle with running, walking, catching or kicking a ball, clumsiness
  • Intelligence: children with spatial reasoning issues may not know how to solve puzzles due to lower intelligence in the spatial domain
  • Central Coherence: children with spatial reasoning issues may have trouble with part-to-whole relationships
  • Handwriting: children with spatial reasoning issues may have handwriting issues due to trouble visualizing how a letter should look
  • Depth Perception: children with spatial reasoning issues may have trouble judging how far away something is
  • Learning Problems: children with spatial reasoning issues may also have challenges with reading or writing
  • Body Space Awareness: children with spatial reasoning issues may have difficulty judging social space and attending to nonverbal cues

Resources on Spatial Reasoning in Childhood

[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Mather, Nancy & Goldstein, Sam (2015). Learning disabilities and challenging behaviors: Using the building blocks model to guide intervention and classroom management, third edition.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Disabilities-Challenging-Behaviors-Intervention/dp/1598578367/

[3] Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.

[4] DeThorne, Laura, Schaefer, Barbara (2014) A guide to nonverbal IQ measures. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. (13), pp.275-290.Link: http://courses.washington.edu/sop/GuidetoChildNonverbalIQMeasures.pdf

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