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Showcase June 2015: Building Blocks for Developing Spatial Skills: Evidence From a Large, Representative U. S. Sample

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Building Blocks for Developing Spatial Skills: Evidence From a Large, Representative U. S. Sample

Jamie Jirout1 and Nora S. Newcombe (PI)2

1 Rhodes College and 2 Temple University

How do children learn to think about space? Thinking about themselves in relation to their surrounding, thinking about the shape and locations of things around them, and how to move around their world are examples of children (and adults) using spatial reasoning. Children develop spatial reasoning from every day experiences, and in this study we looked at a specific type of experience: play. When children look for a block to fit a structure, they might think about size and shape, or mentally rotate the block to determine if it would fit. Similar skills are required for fitting puzzle pieces together. Many board games involve thinking about spatial layout, and planning strategies by using spatial visualization. In this study, we call play with puzzles, blocks, and board games spatial play, because they involve spatial reasoning (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Examples of “spatial toys”

Figure 1

Spatial reasoning is an important skill for every-day tasks, and it has been shown to be important for learning in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) domains (Uttal & Cohen, 2012; Wai Lubinski & Benbow, 2009). For some spatial skills, research suggests that children from middle- and high-socioeconomic status (SES) households tend to score higher on spatial tests than their lower-SES peers (Levine et al., 2005), and a similar pattern is seen with gender, with males outperforming females, especially for tasks that involve mental rotation of images or objects (e.g., Miller & Halpern, 2014; Newcombe, 2007). Gender differences aren’t seen on all spatial tasks, though SES differences are less studied, but – importantly – spatial ability is not fixed, rather it can be developed through experience (Uttal et al, 2013).

The first question we addressed in our study was whether differential performance would be found in a very large and nationally representative sample, with a key strength of controlling for other types of cognitive abilities. Our second question was whether or not we would find a specific relation between children’s spatial play and spatial performance – specific in that we would only see it for spatial play, and not frequency of other types of play. Because frequency of this type of play could be an important factor in children’s spatial learning, our final question asked whether children in different groups – boys vs. girls and across SES levels – would differ in the frequency of different types of play.

Our Methods

Data for this study were collected as part of a standardization study for a widely used intelligence test (Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence or WPPSI-IV; Wechsler, 2012). Participants included 847 four- to seven-year-old children representing the US population based on the 2010 U.S. Census data. Children’s parents filled out a survey on how often their children engaged in several different categories of play, including: a) Blocks, puzzles, and board games, b) Drawing materials, c) Sound-producing toys, d) Dolls, balls, bicycles and trucks, and e) Bikes, skateboards, scooters, swing sets. As part of the standardization study, children were tested on several subtests used to calculate a score of general intelligence: Verbal Comprehension (two measures), Visual Spatial (Block Design), Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed.

Previous studies have found spatial skills to relate to blocks, tangram puzzles, pentominoes, jigsaw puzzles, and mazes. Thus, we used the frequency of play for the category “Puzzles, blocks, and board games” as our measure of spatial play. We used the block design subtest of the WPPSI as our measure of spatial ability. In the block design test, children must use cubes with red, white, and half-red/half-white faces to reproduce a 2-D design (see Figure 2). This task requires a range of spatial reasoning skills, such as mental rotation, part-whole relations, and spatial visualization, and is often seen as a relatively general indicator of spatial ability (Groth-Marnat & Teal, 2000).

Figure 2: Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence Block Design test:

Figure 2

Are there gender and SES differences in spatial performance?

To examine differences between boys and girls and across SES levels, we looked at group means in performance on the block design task. Though previous research has not found differences between girls and boys on this specific task, we included a larger and more diverse sample of children, and, importantly, we controlled for all other types of cognitive ability assessed with the WPPSI. By doing this, we were able to look specifically at spatial performance separate from other types of cognitive abilities. We found that males did outperform females on this task, and also that children from middle- and higher-SES households outperformed those from lower-income households (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Group differences in spatial play

Figure 3

Does spatial play influence spatial reasoning skills?

Our second question asked whether frequency of spatial play relates to spatial performance. To explore the specific relationship between spatial play and performance on the block design task, we included frequency of spatial play, as well as frequency of the other four categories of play, in our analysis. We also included the covariate of general, non-spatial intelligence. This was calculated using children’s subtest scores on the other WPPSI subtests, with block design score removed. By doing this, we could be more confident that any relationship found between spatial play frequency and spatial performance was not caused by playing more with toys in general, and was not caused by being higher scores across domains. When we ran this test, we observed a significant relation between frequency of spatial play and spatial performance. Specifically, children who play with spatial toys a lot outperformed those who play with them less often (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Spatial performance score means and standard errors by frequency and type of play.

Figure 4

Does frequency of spatial play differ across groups?

We found that there were in fact differences in the amount of spatial play between males and females, though we did not observe differences in frequency of spatial play across SES levels. Interestingly, when we include spatial play frequency in our analysis, the effect of SES on spatial performance is no longer significant, while gender differences remain significant. These results suggest that differences in spatial play might help explain some observed disparate spatial performance, but that it is important for future research to further investigate the influence of more specific types of spatial play, as well as the quality of play on spatial development.

Our research suggests that spatial play could be an effective method of developing children’s spatial reasoning skills, and that future research should explore what it is about spatial play that relates to spatial learning, how it can be used most effectively as an intervention to address group differences in spatial performance, and how spatial play can be used to develop spatial reasoning more generally for all children. Development of spatial reasoning skills is a topic of great importance for preK-12 education (Verdine, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek & Newcombe, 2014; National Research Council, 2006), and further knowledge about how spatial play influences development can provide important practical implications.

More info on the above research:

  • ♦ Jirout, J. & Newcombe, N. S. (2015). Building blocks for developing spatial skills: Evidence from a large representative U.S. sample. Psychological Science, 26(3), 303-310. [DOI]
  • References

    • ♦ Groth-Marnat, G. & Teal, M. (2000). Block design as a measure of everyday spatial ability: a study of ecological validity. Perceptual and motor skills, 90(2), 522-526.
    • ♦ 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. [DOI]
    • ♦ Miller, D. I., & Halpern, D. F. (2014). The new science of cognitive sex differences. Trends in cognitive sciences, 18(1), 37-45.
    • ♦ National Research Council (2006). National Research Council Learning to think spatially: GIS as a support system in the K-12 curriculum. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
    • ♦ Newcombe, N. S. (2007). Taking science seriously: Straight thinking about spatial sex differences. In S. Ceci & W. Williams (Eds.), Why aren’t more women in science? Top researchers debate the evidence (pp. 69-77). Washington, DC: APA Books.
    • ♦ Uttal, D. H., & Cohen, C. A. (2012). Spatial thinking and STEM education: When, why and how. Psychology of learning and motivation, 57, 147-181.
    • ♦ Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 352-402.
    • ♦ Verdine, B. N., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Newcombe, N. S. (2014). Finding the missing piece: Blocks, puzzles, and shapes fuel school readiness. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. [DOI]
    • ♦ Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817.
    • ♦ Wechsler, D. (2012). WPPSI-R, manual: Wechsler preschool and primary scale of intelligence, IV. New York, NY: Psychological Corporation.
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