All of us, children included, live in a three-dimensional universe—but too often parents and teachers act as if the physical world is as flat as a worksheet or the page of a book. We call kids’ attention to numbers and letters, but we neglect to remark upon the spatial properties of the objects around us: how tall or short they are, how round or pointy, how close or far. Growing evidence suggests that a focus on these characteristics of the material world can help children hone their spatial thinking skills—and that such skills, in turn, support achievement in subjects like science and math.
In a study published this month in the journal Developmental Psychology, for example, scientists from the University of Chicago reported that young children who understand how shapes fit together are better able to use a number line and to solve computation problems. Researcher Elizabeth Gunderson and her coauthors asked students in first and second grade to select the single shape from among four choices that would correctly complete a square. The kids who spotted the right shape also showed the most growth in their number-line knowledge over the following school year, and scored highest on a measure of mathematics ability at age eight.