With much of the emphasis on verbal and math aptitudes because they are measured on mandatory standardized testing, spatial reasoning is not a priority in most schools. This skill, which we find to be of value in activities as joyful as dancing and as practical as fitting the family’s suitcases into the trunk of a car, is often completely overlooked and rarely recognized as a gift. Even when adults use spatial language or suggest activities such as building with blocks to young people, studies show this happens more frequently with boys than girls.
Why should we be concerned about these disparities? According to the authors of Taking Shape: Activities to Develop Geometric and Spatial Thinking, spatial reasoning is a gateway to mathematics and STEM careers. If we want more students to feel confident enough to choose these paths, especially girls, we need to grant more opportunities to all children to practice and nurture these skills. Even those who choose sports or artistic endeavors will benefit from increased spatial reasoning.
6 Ways to support spatial reasoning skills online
Though it’s preferable to do as many spatial reasoning activities as one can in the physical world, some online resources can supplement these. Here are six ways to practice spatial reasoning skills with the help of technology.
Understand maps and navigate with them
The appreciation of maps, and the ability to make sense of them, may be a dying art in this age of smartphones that literally direct us, turn by turn, toward our destinations. However, we know that technology can sometimes fail, no matter how advanced it has become.
A general understanding of where we are in the world in relation to others will always be necessary. To help achieve this awareness, students can use this interactive tool from National Geographic to make their own maps with symbols and layers.
Teachers and parents can help them learn more about our world using lessons that integrate Google Earth.
For those seeking adventure, families and school groups can search for small treasures such as inexpensive plastic toys and coins by using the Geocaching app to explore real locations.
Allow students to create and explore by manipulating objects
Make a conscious effort to give all children, no matter their gender, plenty of opportunities to create and explore by manipulating objects. Blocks, Lego kits, and other construction toys should be encouraged whenever age-appropriate. But when you want to avoid hunting for small missing pieces (or inadvertently stepping on them), digital assembly can be just as satisfying.
Many young people are familiar with Minecraft, which can encourage creativity and foster spatial reasoning skills. Tinkercad and CoSpaces are two other tools that are excellent introductions to Computer-Aided Design. They are both free (though CoSpaces has a tiered option that offers more features for a paid license) and work with your web browser. In addition, there are options to integrate coding for more precise creations. CoSpaces also can be viewed in both virtual and augmented reality, allowing for several different perspectives as you design.
Read more: Makerspaces go digital: 6 options for the blended classroom
Reproduce a final product with given constraints
Jigsaw puzzles are a common example of this activity. For digital jigsaws that can be worked on collaboratively as families or with groups of friends, Google Arts and Culture offers “Puzzle Party.” Jigsaw Explorer also has a collaborative feature, and you can even turn your own photo into a puzzle.
Tangram challenges are a favorite for students. The Play Osmo Tangram game blends the physical and virtual worlds with its puzzles, or you can visit the free Tangram builder from Mathigon.
Educator Tony Vincent offers a course for young people called “Shapegrams,” in which he scaffolds designing with shapes in Google Drawing by posting a completed picture and asking students to recreate it. The first four are free, and then membership is required.
For increased difficulty, take away the ability to rotate and make chronology crucially important. Sliding puzzles like these add the additional constraint of being unable to pick up any pieces to transfer or turn them. The Red Block Game (similar to the popular game Rush Hour) is another example of this type of challenge. Another game in which sequencing matters is Factory Balls Forever, where the player dips spheres into paint buckets to replicate the image.
Translate 2D to 3D and vice versa
2D “nets” are the flattened counterparts of 3D shapes. These puzzles challenge you to find the ones that match each other. In this game, you have to separate the nets that could be folded into cubes from the ones that cannot. Paint the faces of these nets so that no two cubes would look alike. You can find additional net challenges on this page, or test your knowledge of nets here.
Read more: Shaping young minds: 3D printing solutions for education
Visualize “the whole” with only partial clues
With these types of activities, children can be told to think like detectives. They need to be observant and notice particular attributes. Well-known examples of this kind of spatial challenge are the matrix reasoning puzzles that are often used in nonverbal testing. There is a pattern in each column and row that must be determined in order to select the missing symbol.
Hole Punch Puzzles, also sometimes found on aptitude tests, either show you a piece of paper unfolded with a bunch of holes, asking you to determine how to fold it and punch it to recreate the same number and sequence of holes, or offer a series of images of how it is folded and punched requiring students to select the picture that represents how it will look when it is then unfolded.
Steve Wyborney provides two types of lessons that support this type of spatial reasoning. One is called “Cube Conversations,” where students will see an image of unifix cubes and need to determine what the total amount is - even though some can’t be seen. The other is “Splat,” where students must use mathematical clues to determine the number of dots covered by a “splat” of color.
Teach the rudiments of coding
With a lot of debates being conducted about whether or not coding should be required in the curriculum for all students, there is certainly an argument to be made for exposing students to the basic computer programming skills in order to develop their spatial reasoning.
To picture one’s goal, the steps for achieving it, and the language needed to convey those steps demands mental visualization techniques that can translate to many other areas such as musical composition, medical surgery, or architectural drawings. It may not be necessary to learn a specific programming language unless a student plans to pursue a career in that area. Games such as Cargo-Bot require the same type of logic.
If you wish your students to gain more experience with concepts such as using variables, block coding is a great way to start for any novice and can eventually transition to the text coding that most adult programming jobs require. There is no more versatile block coding site than Scratch, which is free and available in any browser.
For even deeper instruction, one of the best sources for free coding practice is Code.org, where you can find lessons, tutorials, and games for every age, ability level, and device.
It is not an easy task to teach children how to see things in their brains - to mentally rotate, flip, translate, or turn something inside out. But these are necessary skills, and they are much more difficult to develop as adults.
By intentionally planning and providing opportunities for practice in spatial reasoning, we can help students build an intelligence that will be useful in countless professions and their day-to-day lives.