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Showcase February 2013: Improving young children's jigsaw puzzle skills: The role of spatial gestures

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Improving young children's jigsaw puzzle skills: The role of spatial gestures

Erica Cartmill, Chris Young, Susan Levine (Co-PI), Susan Goldin-Meadow (Co-PI)

Department of Psychology, University of Chicago


For the archival version of this research, and the preferred citation, see:

  • Young, C. J., Cartmill, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). Gesture and Speech Input are Interlocking Pieces: The Development of Children’s Jigsaw Puzzle Assembly Ability. In P. Bello, M. Guarini, M. McShane, & B. Scassellati (Eds.), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 23-26 July 2014 (pp. 1820-1825). Cognitive Science Society.


Playing with jigsaw puzzles provides a unique opportunity for children both to develop facility with spatial language and more general spatial skills. Children’s repertoire of spatial terms may be critical to understanding instructions given by adults (e.g. “turn the corner piece”) and the experience of manipulating puzzle pieces provides opportunities for children to develop mental rotation abilities (Levine, Vasilyeva, Lourenco, Newcombe, & Huttenlocher, 2005; Williams, 2004). In addition, the ubiquity of puzzle play, the early age of exposure to puzzles, and the informal context in which instruction in puzzle play tends to occur make puzzle assembly an excellent test bed for improving children’s burgeoning spatial abilities.

To study the connections between typical play with jigsaw puzzles and spatial skills, a previous study recorded puzzle play sessions involving both parents and children that arose spontaneously in the home environment, and compared the frequency of these sessions to children’s ability at a spatial transformation task (Levine, Ratliff, Huttenlocher, and Cannon, 2012). Researchers found that parents varied in the amount of spatial language they used during puzzle play and that parents used more spatial language during harder puzzles. They also found that more frequent puzzle play related to better spatial performance. Extending the findings from this study, we argue that one potential route for improving children’s ability at completing puzzles would be to provide them with enriched spatial input during activities that engage children’s spatial language and spatial skills.

Two tools useful for understanding spatial tasks are spatial language and gesture. In a study of the spatial language parents produced in all contexts, the amount of spatial language parents provided predicted the number of spatial words young children knew, which in turn predicted children’s ability on a battery of spatial tasks (Pruden, Levine, & Huttenlocher, 2011). Cartmill et al. (2010) extended this work to ask whether the gestures parents made during spatial language also played a role in predicting children’s spatial language, building on research showing that children learn more from spoken instruction if it is accompanied by gesture than if it is not (Church, Ayman-Nolley, & Mahootian, 2004; Valenzeno, Alibali, & Klatzky, 2003). Cartmill et al. found that when gestures accompanied parents’ spatial language, it predicted children’s spatial language above and beyond spatial language without gesture and non-spatial utterances.

Naturalistic studies of parent spatial language and gesture suggest that learning will be optimized when gesture and speech are both present. To maximize the potential benefit of training and tease apart the relative contributions of spatial language and gesture as input to learning, we experimentally manipulated the presence and absence of spatial language and gesture input during exposure to a spatial task.

The study used a training paradigm in which 4-year-old children were each given experience with a spatial activity (assembling jigsaw puzzles) in one of four training conditions. All children received the same amount of experience with the spatial activity, but the type of spatial input they received varied, both in speech (spatial or non-spatial language) and gesture (present or absent). All children were given a two-day pretest, experience assembling four puzzles with an experimenter over a 3-day period, and a two-day posttest.

Tests of spatial cognition

Children completed a pretest and posttest consisting of five verbal and non-verbal spatial tasks, including a puzzle-specific task to test their ability to assemble puzzles. This measure was the most directly related to the training. In the puzzle assembly task, children were given a 24-piece puzzle in a wooden frame and asked to complete it on their own. The number of pieces a child correctly positioned in five minutes was used as a measure of their puzzle ability.


Children were tested in one of four experimental conditions varying in the amount of spatial information that the experimented conveyed in speech and gesture during the four puzzle tasks (Figure 1). The puzzle activities used a turn-taking paradigm in which the experimenter and child alternated putting pieces into the puzzle.

In the spatial language conditions, experimenters used spatial words to refer to (1) dimensions, features, and shapes (e.g., small, curvy, straight, corner, border, square, circle), (2) orientations and transformations (e.g., upside-down, turn, flip), (3) locations and directions (e.g., behind, next to, left), or (4) physical connections (e.g., fits, connects, lines up). In the non-spatial language conditions, experimenters referred to the images on the pieces using (1) colors and textures (e.g., red, yellow, sandy, wooden), (2) emotions or actions (e.g., happy, excited, playing, splashing), (3) landmark features of the natural world (e.g., sky, ground, trees), or (4) matching (e.g., goes/doesn’t go, matches). The gesture in the two gesture conditions either provided spatial information by directly illustrating spatial concepts (e.g., holding the forefinger and thumb in an “L” shape to represent a corner piece), or by tracing spatial features on the pieces or frame of the puzzle. Table 1 gives an example of how the experimenter’s language and gesture for a particular piece varied in the four conditions.

Figure 1: Example of language and gesture used in the four different conditionsto refer to the puzzle piece on the right.

Children who received gestural input significantly improved on the puzzle task regardless of whether they received spatial language. Children who received spatial language without gesture did not. These results suggest that gesture’s contribution in highlighting spatial features of jigsaw puzzle pieces may provide unique and useful input for developing proficiency at the task.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Improvement associated with spatial language and gesture puzzle training on correctly positioning jigsaw puzzle pieces.

In sum, these results demonstrate the improvement possible on a spatial task, even with concentrated, but targeted, spatial intervention. Training with gesture appears to have had a substantial effect, and its potency and portability suggests that it could be used widely and effectively as an instructional tool, and may even have a privileged path to quickly learning some spatial tasks. We did not observe a significant effect of spatial language, nor an increase in performance on other spatial tasks, though trends suggest that improvement and transfer may occur with more training, and may more strongly affect groups with little exposure to spatial activities at home.


  • ♦ Cartmill, E. A., Pruden, S., Levine, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010). The role of parent gesture in the development of children’s spatial language. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 70-77). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
  • ♦ Church, R. B., Ayman-Nolley, S., & Mahootian, S. (2004). The role of gesture in bilingual education: Does gesture enhance learning? International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7, 303-319.
  • ♦ Levine, S. C., Vasilyeva, M., Lourenco, S. F., Newcombe, N. S., & Huttenlocher, J. (2005). Socioeconomic status modifies the sex difference in spatial skill. Psychological Science, 16, 841–845.
  • ♦ Pruden, S., Levine, S. C., & Huttenlocher, J. (2011). Children’s spatial thinking: Does talk about the spatial world matter? Advance online publication. Developmental Science, 14, 1417-1430.
  • ♦ Valenzeno, L., Alibali, M. W., & Klatzky, R. (2003). Teachers' gestures facilitate students' learning: A lesson in symmetry. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 187-204.
  • ♦ Williams, A. D. (2004). The jigsaw puzzle: Piece together a history. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
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