Spatial Thinking – trainable skills?

Do all children think spatially and why do some children appear to have more developed skills in this area than others?

“Spatial thinking concerns the locations of objects, their shapes, their relation to each
other and the paths they take as they move.” (Newcombe, 2010).

Einstein’s famous quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge” says that developing creativity builds intelligence not just from information stored in the brain.

It seems that Einstein primarily thought in spatial images.

Children’s imagination can develop strong connections in the brain. Innovative minds are ‘at play’ throughout a lifetime – they are playing with objects and ideas and making these connections.

Building ‘functional connectivity’ in the brain means that the brain is developing connections with its neural networks. The ‘white matter’ comprises 90 per cent of brain cells and is called Myelin; located where neurons make connections. Myelin develops with the normal maturation of the brain and with the active use of neural circuits. Children who practice certain skills will develop connectivity in the brain for that skill.

The area of the brain used for spatial thinking is the parietal cortex, one of the sensory areas in the back of the brain. Einstein had more integrated circuits in this area.

Physically manipulating 3D objects can build connections which are the foundation stones for maths and science reasoning. When children attempt to do a jigsaw they have to imagine how the piece will look and fit. Often children will have to visualize by rotating the piece in their mind and then physically try and fit it in the puzzle.

Gunderson, Ramirez, Beilock and Levine (2012) in their research, found that pupils who had well developed spatial skills were able to place numbers on a number line more accurately. It seems that spatial skill ability helps children’s visualization of the number line and maths estimation.

It is probable that the strongest development of spatial thinking is developed when children create their own images using their own imagination, rather than purely using images that have been created by others e.g. on a computer screen.

Children think verbally, mathematically and spatially and we need to develop all three of these skills to enable them to be most effective in their thinking.

So how can we train Spatial Thinking?

Jirout & Newcombe (2015) have produced evidence from a large study showing that children who play creatively with spatial toys develop their spatial skills more than children who do not access these.

In a previous study Newcombe & Fricke (2010) suggest there are many daily opportunities for developing spatial skills from an early age such as:

  • Fitting bed sheets / covers on a bed
  • Exploring shapes when we cut up food
  • Packing a case
  • Fitting shopping in a bag / box
  • Playing with boxes of different sizes


Playing with a variety of toys such as:

  • Wooden blocks
  • Lego
  • Interlocking blocks
  • Puzzles
  • Jigsaws and Board games



  • Make structures, models etc. from a whole range of materials
  • Playing ‘directional’ games such as ‘Simon Says’ and a ‘robot game’ where someone gives a child directions and the child pretends they are a robot
  • Map work, including 3D models, can be started early and developed as a child grows
  • Use spatially challenging books like Zoom which ‘zooms’ in at different levels to look at finer details
  • Older children can continue with more complicated construction activities, puzzles and certain computer games like Tetris (where shapes are rotated on the screen) can be an additional source of learning. However computer games should not be the only source


From an early age it’s important to talk to children using spatial vocabulary e.g. big, little, full, circle, straight, edge. This can be developed as the child matures. The use of analogies to compare objects, diagrams etc. to see similarities and differences further strengthens these connections. The use of gesture both by adults and children is to be encouraged as this helps children to understand the words.

Children who try to visualize what a structure will look like will develop their accuracy and spatial skills. This can be extended to symbolic representations and drawings that show the differences.

Children will also improve their learning when they try to explain how to solve a problem before they attempt it.

Happy playing, designing and building to develop your little Einsteins!!


  • Gunderson, A., Ramirez, G., Beilock, S.L. & Levine, S.C., (2012). The Relation between Spatial Skills & Early Number Knowledge: The Role of the Linear Number Line. Development of Psychology, Sep 201248(5):1241.
  • Healy, J.M., (2010). Different Learners. Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child’s Learning Problems. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Jirout, J. & Newcombe, N. (2015). Building Blocks for Developing Spatial Skills:Evidence from a large Representative US sample. Psychological Science. Jan 27, 2015. 0956797614563338.
  • Levine, S. Puzzle Smart.
  • Newcombe, N.S. (2010). Picture This. Increasing Math & Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator, Summer,2010.
  • Witelson, S.F., Kigar, D.L., Harvey, T. (1999). The Exceptional Brain of Albert Einstein. Lancet 353, no. 9170 (June, 1999): 2149-2153.


Gill Scott, Connect 2 Success
Specialist Assessment and Tuition for Young People with Learning Difficulties