Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Spatial Reasoning: How to Build It and Why it’s Important

Spatial Reasoning: How to Build it and Why it’s Important
Heather Crawford-Ferre, Ph.D.

Spatial thinking includes the positions of objects and shapes and how they relate to each other.  Linn and Petersen (1985) define spatial sense as the “mental process used to perceive, store, recall, create, edit and communicate spatial images” (p. 1479). Spatial reasoning includes all of these definitions, but also decides how efficiently you pack your suitcase or load your dishwasher!

 Below is an example that requires spatial reasoning.

Using any combination of the pattern blocks above, determine the greatest and fewest number of pattern blocks possible to fill the figure.

Spatial reasoning skills are vitally important. Students with strong spatial reasoning skills are more likely to be successful in STEM disciplines (Hutton & Taylor, 2013), including medicine, architecture, graphic design, and geography. Additionally, research indicates that improving students’ spatial skills also leads to improved achievement in problem solving, critical thinking and mathematics.

Spatial visualization is not intuitive. Students do not automatically grow in spatial reasoning, but rather through experience and practice (Clements, Samara & Wilson, 2004). Many students in the United States lack the experiences to build spatial reasoning skills. This is particularly true to females, whose toys are less likely to require spatial skill for play. Fortunately, research indicates that through carefully selected activities, students can improve their spatial reasoning (Casey, Andrews, Schiendler, Kersh, Samper & Copley, 2008).

Spatial Reasoning Activities for your Chromebook

1.      Use Google Maps to investigate location, magnitude, and relative distance and directions. Try this lesson plan from National Geographic Education Collection. (http://bit.ly/2HlfpWI)

2.      Use Google Draw to explore Tangrams and investigate moving, rotating and translating shapes. After solving some puzzles encourage students to design puzzles to challenge other students. Try these puzzles to get you started. (http://bit.ly/2ovfpbX)

3.      Have students explore photography and videography. This provides the opportunity for students to experiment with different angles and senses of scale. This is a great chance to try WeVideo (It’s included for Nevada Ready 21 schools). (https://www.wevideo.com/)

4.      Try Desmos (It’s included for Nevada Ready 21 schools) to investigate surface area and nets. Try this multi-day lesson plan from a Google Certified Educator (https://jennvadnais.com/2016/05/21/nets-surface-area-desmos/)

5.      Learn to play music. Many researchers have found that playing music increases spatial skills. Have you tried Noteflight yet? It’s included for Nevada Ready 21 schools).  (https://www.noteflight.com/)

6.      Make time for (carefully chosen) video games. Research shows that games where the individual is playing in “first person” significantly increases the likelihood of visualizing movement. You might also try the classic video game Tetris which significantly increases spatial rotation skills!


Casey, B. M., Andrews, N., Schindler, H., Kersh, J. E., Samper, A. and Copley, J. (2008). The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block-building activities’. Cognition and Instruction, 26(3), 269–309.

 Clements, D. H., Wilson, D. C. and Sarama, J. (2004). Young children’s composition of geometric figures: A learning trajectory. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 6(2), 163–184.

Hutton, A., & Taylor, H. A. (2013). Training spatial thinking fundamental to STEM education. Cognitive Processing, 31(4), 434–455

Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 56(6), 1479-1498.