Enhancing Children’s Learning through Spatial Skills Development


Several studies have demonstrated the significant role of spatial skills in learning, particularly in STEM disciplines, where bodily experiences can shape cognitive processes, potentially encouraging the design of learning scenarios based on sensorimotor interactions and gestures. Consolidating research efforts to understand the dynamic relationship between spatial skills and embodied learning in children, this article aims to emphasize the importance of adopting an embodied approach to improve spatial skills in a learning context. In addition, recent knowledge and experimental results of this educational approach will be considered.

Keyword: Leanirng, Children, Spatial skills, Embodied Interaction, Spatial Development.

1. Introduction

Spatial skills refer to the ability to understand relationships between different positions in space, navigate the environment and manipulate objects (Wang et al., 2014).

The spatial skills framework conceptualized by Buckley et al., (2018) involves several skills, such as spatial perception, spatial visualization and mental rotation. Spatial perception refers to the ability to perceive and understand the relationship between objects, navigate the environment and estimate distances and proportions, while spatial visualization allows us to manipulate complex spatial information (Yang & Chen, 2010) and mentally generate 2D or 3D objects. Finally, mental rotation refers to the cognitive process of mentally manipulating and rotating visual objects in one’s mind in order to understand its spatial orientation from different perspectives. Taken together, all these skills enable individuals to understand and interact with spatial aspects of their environment, playing a significant role in various everyday tasks and domains that require spatial reasoning.

The development of spatial skills in children begins at a relatively early stage, coinciding with their first explorations of physical space whereas variations in a child’s spatial abilities are observed in various spatial tasks (Hawes et al., 2022).

Some research suggests that gender differences in the performance of spatial tasks may emerge around age 10 (Neuburger et al., 2012) but remains unclear whether such differences may be due to biological factors or by the different activities performed by boys and girls that provide greater exposure to spatial experiences for boys, exacerbating these differences (Reilly et al., 2016).

Although there may be variations in spatial skills among individuals it is important to note that these skills are malleable and can be improved through training (Stieff & Uttal, 2015; Uttal et al., 2013). Among the various factors that can affect the development of spatial skills, environmental factors emerge as particularly influential. Specifically, early exposure to spatial experiences and engagement in activities that promote spatial thinking, such as playing with construction toys or participating in space-focused hobbies, may have a positive effect on the development of these skills (Caplan & Caplan, 1994).

Despite gender differences involve several domains in the field of psychology (Re et al., 2023) and men and women show similar levels of overall intelligence, gender disparities may contribute to women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields (Reilly et al., 2016), including differences in cognitive strategies used to solve spatial tasks. What is confirmed instead is that improving spatial skills through hands-on activities can have positive effects on other cognitive skills (Re et al., 2024) supporting the idea that embodied experiences and spatial skills are interconnected. Understanding these aspects is crucial in designing learning methods that focuse on the importance of body movements in game design and children’s understanding of spatial concepts.

2. Embodied learning

Body interaction in educational context has been shown to capture students’ attention and enhance learning effects.

Glenberg (2011) has found that when students manipulate toys while reading, they are able to remember stories more than students who only read the text suggesting the importance of a multisensory learning environment. Indeed, within a framework of embodied cognition, human cognition arises in sensorimotor experiences and knowledge acquisition is closely linked to interaction with the environment (Re & Malvica 2019., 2023). Therefore, how a body interacts with and perceives its physical surroundings plays an important role in how knowledge is formed during various activities.

An embodied learning activity emphasizes the importance of multisensory experiences and enables children to gain practical knowledge and apply concepts in real-world contexts. It involves physical engagement with objects and tools, such as building models, assembling structures or engaging in hands-on activities that help children to develop their spatial skills.

Incorporating embodied activities in education also supports the principles of constructivism, where learners actively build their understanding of the world through hands-on experiences (Piaget, 1953). Moreover, embodied activities not only enhance students’ understanding of scientific concepts but also promote active engagement and permeate every aspect of a child’s learning journey.

A child’s ability to grasp geometric concepts, understand measurements, and engage in spatial reasoning significantly influences their performance in mathematics. Through spatial tasks, children not only learn to visualize shapes and spatial relationships but also develop the foundation for advanced mathematical reasoning essential in higher education and professional fields. Beyond the realms of mathematics and science, spatial skills intersect with language and literacy development. Research indicates that children proficient in spatial tasks exhibit enhanced reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition (Pruden, 2011).

The ability to mentally visualize and manipulate spatial information aids in understanding textual descriptions, navigating complex narratives, and interpreting visual imagery, thereby enriching the overall literacy experience. Moreover, spatial skills contribute to holistic cognitive development. Engaging in spatial activities such as drawing, building, and puzzle-solving allows children to explore their imagination, experiment with different solutions, and develop innovative thinking patterns.

3. What does the research say?

Byrne et al., (2023) have summarized the evidence on the success of physical manipulation interventions for children’s spatial skills, incorporating hands-on activities into early learning experiences.

Fernandez-Mendez et al., (2020) have studied the influence of spatial and motor skills on mathematical performance in 305 children aged 6 to 8 years. Their study has found that spatial reasoning significantly influenced math performance, especially in 6- and 7-year-olds, while mental rotation was also predictive.

Pier et al., (2014) have explored the role of speech and dynamic gestures in the construction of mathematical demonstrations, finding that both contribute significantly to the construction of valid demonstrations. Their study suggest that speech and dynamic gestures play distinct but complementary roles in mathematical argumentation. Similarly, Hostetter & Alibali (2019) argued that gestures accompanying speech emerge from perceptual and motor simulations underlying embodied language and mental imagery. They have proposed the framework of gestures as simulated action, suggesting that gestures derive from an embodied cognitive system.

The theory of Grounded and Embodied Mathematical Cognition (Nathan & Walkington, 2017) emphasizes the role of action and language in the production of pre-college geometry proofs and informs the design of a game-based learning environment.

Burte et al., (2017) have examined the impact of an embodied spatial education program on elementary student’s spatial and mathematical thinking. The program has shown improvements in spatial thinking and improvements in real-world math problems.

Clifton et al., (2016) have discussed the correlation between spatial skills and STEM success, proposing the design of tangible, embodied interfaces to engage spatial cognition aimed to bring interaction with digital content into the physical environment by leveraging the relationship between the body and spatial cognition.

Early training in spatial skills through hands-on exploration and activities supports the importance of integrating spatially focused curricula in childhood education. Terlecki et al., (2008) have found that training in one spatial task can positively impact performance in other spatial domains.

Other studies have linked early spatial skill development to various domains in STEM education, including math knowledge, problem-solving abilities, mental rotation competence, and executive functions.

Integrating physical activity into academic time enhances executive functioning (Norris et al., 2019), with positive effects observed on children’s planning, problem-solving, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility (De Greef et al., 2018; Benzing et al., 2016). Furthermore, Hu et al., (2015) have investigated the involvement of kinesthetic modalities in learning, while tactile modalities engage learners through physical interactions with educational materials (Macken & Ginns, 2014).

In summary, these findings contribute to understanding spatial skills and their implications for learning, emphasizing effective educational strategies and interventions. By integrating embodied tools, educational experiences can be enriched, bridging abstract concepts with tangible bodily experiences. This integration not only enhances understanding but also boosts performance in STEM education, fostering a deeper engagement and promoting lasting learning outcomes.

4. Discussion

Spatial skills involve the ability to perceive, understand and manipulate objects and spaces in the physical world, playing a crucial role in human cognition (Lee-Cultura & Giannakos, 2020). These skills involve mental processes that enable individuals to navigate their environment, solve problems, and understand spatial relationships. From early childhood spatial skills have a profound impact on various aspects of life, including academic achievement, professional success, and daily activities.

Understanding the importance of spatial skills can help educators and researchers to design effective interventions and instructional strategies to improve spatial skills. Moreover, these skills play a significant role in technological advancements, particularly in fields like virtual reality, augmented reality, and robotics. In fact, understanding spatial relationships is crucial for designing and navigating virtual environments, programming robotic movements, and developing immersive experiences.

By incorporating physical interaction and movement, students can develop a deeper understanding of complex concepts, actively interact with the environment, construct knowledge more effectively, and retain information for longer periods. Based on the framework of embodied cognition, educational interventions should be developed considering the importance of bodily action in the context of learning.

Anna Re
Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche, CNR (Palermo)


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