Preschool children who hear their parents describe the size and shape of objects and then use those words themselves perform better on tests of their spatial skills, researchers at the University of Chicago have found.
The study is the first to show that learning to use a wide range of spatial words predicts children’s later spatial thinking, which in turn is important in mathematics, science and technology. Children who heard and then produced 45 additional spatial terms saw, on average, a 23 percent increase in their scores on a non-verbal assessment of spatial thinking.
“Our results suggest that children’s talk about space early in development is a significant predictor of their later spatial thinking,” said Susan Levine, a psychologist at UChicago, who co-authored the paper in the current issue of Developmental Science.
The finding provides further evidence for the importance of exposing children to words related to mathematical concepts. In earlier work, Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology, and colleagues showed that talking about mathematics with children at an early age greatly improved their performance in math.
“In view of findings that show spatial thinking is an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) achievement and careers, it is important to explore the kinds of early inputs that are related to spatial thinking,” Levine and colleagues write in the article, “Children’s Spatial Thinking: Does Talk About the Spatial World Matter?” Spatial language may encourage children to adopt a habit of mind when looking at the world that increases their attention to spatial relations.
Joining Levine in writing the article were lead author Shannon Pruden, assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University and former postdoctoral fellow at UChicago, and Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UChicago.
Observing how parents and children interact
For the study, the research team videotaped children between ages 14 and 46 months who were accompanied by their primary caregivers. They videotaped the caregivers, primarily the children’s mothers, as they interacted with their children during their normal, everyday activities. The 90-minute sessions were conducted at four-month intervals.