Scientists discover secret link to success in math and science

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The right wayI am, without question, spatially challenged.

I often say “right” when I mean “left.” It’s rare that I know in what direction I’m facing, and I’m certain to get lost following directions that include the words: north, south, east, or west. Ask, inside a building new to me, to point in the direction in which I parked my car and I’ll have no idea.

Spatial intelligence, one of Howard Gardner’s eight Multiple Intelligences, is defined as the ability to perceive the visual-spatial world accurately and to be able to manipulate or adapt (objects, materials, or directions) based on those perceptions. It includes the capacity to visualize, to represent ideas graphically, and to orient oneself appropriately.

People use spatial skills to hunt, scout, navigate and find our way back to our cars after shopping. Some professions requiring spatial aptitude include: guides, interior decorators, architects, and artists. Since we live in a three-dimensional world, spatial skills come in handy. Just ask anyone without them (like me). Interestingly, while we pay a lot of attention to children’s skills in reading and math, most people give little thought kids’ developing spatial abilities.

That may soon change, however as scientists continue to uncover the hidden links between spatial skills and learning in science and math. This makes sense to me. I never did well in science or math either.

A recently published a study in the journal Developmental Psychology showed that young children who understand how shapes fit together also better understand not only concepts of geometry, but also arithmetic as well as how number lines work. Researchers asked children to select a shape from among four choices that would correctly complete a square. The kids who spotted the right shape also got higher math scores the following school year.

“We found that children’s spatial skills at the beginning of first and second grades predicted improvements in linear number line knowledge over the course of the school year,” said Elizabeth Gunderson, author of the study.

“These results suggest that improving children’s spatial thinking at a young age may not only help foster skills specific to spatial reasoning but also improve symbolic numerical representations,” said co-author Susan Levine, a leading authority on spatial and mathematical learning. “This is important since spatial learning is malleable and can be positively influenced by early spatial experiences.”

Other evidence suggests that this link reaches into our adult lives and can even influence which profession we choose. Project Talent, a study following over 440,000 students from 1,353 schools across the country over the course of their lifetimes, reports: “ . . .people who had high scores on spatial tests in high school were much more likely to major in STEM disciplines and go into STEM careers.”

Unlike many ideas about IQ (a static number we’re stuck with), all of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences are known to be dynamic, adaptable and can be strengthened even into late adulthood. While this is true for spatial skills, it is also true that they begin developing at an early age. And the more we can do to support our children’s early development, the better.

So what can we do to stimulate kids’ spatial intelligence?

Playing with blocks and puzzles helps, but even more important are the conversations adults have with children as we explore the world around us–together. Studies suggest that using words like “circle,” “curvy,” “edge,” “over,” “around,” and “through,” while engaged in spatial games or puzzles, actually increases how well children perform on spatial tasks at a later age.

Opportunities for spatial play are all around us. With a little effort, it’s easy and fun to work activities and vocabulary related to location, direction and shapes into our play with young children. Doing so early will result, not only in a more spatially intelligent child, but also one with a leg up in math and science in school–and in life.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License Fabrizio Sciami

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