Dec 4, 2015

#STEM Starts at Home: Turn! aka Spatial Skills Development

what to do 

Let your baby hold your finger, a spoon, or a toy like a rattle. Soon the clench will be paired with a wrist bend, and later turning and twisting the object around.
Image by lusi (sanja gjenero), via

what you are doing 

As your tyke turns objects, he or she becomes aware that things have different sides. Turning is a way to see these different views so a model of 3D objects can be built.
Visualization in 3D is part of spatial skills which are important in STEM success. You can think of spatial skills at this age in three main categories:
  • Placement: positioning objects in space. e.g. above, behind, between, inside
  • Features: ways to describe how objects are similar or different, and can fit (or not fit) together. e.g. triangle, corner, edge, round
Thus, the act of turning objects is the beginning of spatial awareness.


How you can grow 

Objects like spoons, forks, and rattles look different from different directions. Use them as starter experiences for your child to stimulate and build spatial skills.

As your baby’s small motor skills develop, move on to plastic cups or that ring of blank CDs you have left over from the start of the millennium. These make great nesting and stacking objects which develop the next level of understanding size, shape, and relation to other objects.

Large motor activities like turning, maneuvering around objects, pushing a cart, and going through doorways require your tyke to identify empty space, develop a sense of perspective, and make size and speed concepts real, useful, and concrete.

As your toddler shouts in disdain that he or she can’t go through a chair to pick up a toy that dropped, show with words and gestures that the problem can be solved spatially by going around or under the chair.

Tapping tykes on the head as they crawl under a table helps them remember (make a map in their minds) that something is up there. As their brain grows, they can relate the action of squatting down to get under with the idea that something is now above them.

You know you are successful 

When your babe starts to register these concepts, you know he or she is developing good spatial skills:
  • Up. My son was completely enthralled with the concept of up. We realized something was up (hah) when he would suddenly throw his head back and look straight above with a smile. It was as if he said “Hey, there’s something up there!”
  • Inside. I distinctly remember the day my son discovered that something could go inside of something else. It gripped his attention for quite a while as he put things in an empty pitcher and then took them out. Then he looked around for something else to stick his object in. It’s quite a wonder to watch.
  • Behind. Halloween was the time we first saw that our boy realized the concept of behind. He started chasing the tail of his costume as he spied the trailing yellow out the corner of his eye.
  • Mirror. So many parents tell me about when their baby first touches his or her face when looking in the mirror. When the babe then starts to touch other parts of the face and smiles when the baby in the mirror does the same, you are getting clues that some spatial skill development is going on.
  • Gestures. Even though my early childhood evaluation survey keeps wanting to see if my son can understand my words without gestures, I just can’t stop. Gestures are one of the first ways that babes start to communicate since speaking words are so much harder. But gestures seem to also be ways children can comprehend spatial relationships. Think about how you can describe with just words, the concept of above. But if you can use your hands, the concept becomes much clearer more quickly. Studies also indicate that children who use gestures tend to have stronger spatial awareness. So encourage your kiddo to talk with the hands. It may help develop STEM skills.

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