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‘Small’ talk improves kids’ spatial skills

U. CHICAGO (US) — Preschool children who hear their parents describe the size and shape of objects and then use those words themselves perform on average 23 percent better on spatial skill tests later on.

The findings reported in the journal Developmental Science expand on earlier studies that showed that talking about mathematics with children at an early age greatly improved their performance in math.

“Our results suggest that children’s talk about space early in development is a significant predictor of their later spatial thinking,” says Susan Levine, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

“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 says.

Spatial language may encourage children to adopt a habit of mind when looking at the world that increases their attention to spatial relations.

For the study, the research team videotaped children between 14 and 46 months who were accompanied by their primary caregivers. The caregivers, largely the children’s mothers, were observed as they interacted with their children during normal, everyday activities. The 90-minute sessions were conducted at four-month intervals.

The study group included 52 children and 52 caregivers from an economically and ethnically diverse set of homes in the Chicago area.

The researchers recorded words that were related to spatial concepts used by both children and caregivers. They noted the use of names for two- and three-dimensional objects, such as “circle” or “triangle”; words that described size, such as “tall” and “wide”; and words that described the features of shapes such as “bent,” “edge” and “corner.”

The researchers found a wide variation in the number of spatial words parents and children used. On average, parents used 167 words related to spatial concepts during the 13.5 hours of recorded time during the period of 14 to 46 months, but the range was wide—from 5 to 525 spatial words.

Among children, there was a similar variability, with children producing an average of 74 spatial related words and using a range of 4 to 191 spatial words during the study period. The children who used more spatial terms were more likely to have caregivers who used those terms.

When the children were four-and-a-half years old, they were assessed for their spatial skills, to see how well they could mentally rotate objects, copy block designs, and do spatial analogies, which involved picking out the same spatial relations when different objects were involved.

Children who were exposed to more spatial terms during their everyday activities and produced these words themselves performed much better on spatial tests at four-and-a-half years of age than children who did not hear and produce as many of these spatial terms. Importantly, this was true, even controlling for children’s overall productive vocabulary.

The impact was greatest for children’s performance on the spatial analogies and mental rotation tasks. For every 45 additional spatial words children produced during spontaneous talk with their parents, they saw, on average, a 23 percent increase in their scores on the spatial analogies task and a 15 percent increase in their performance on the mental rotation task.

The increased use of spatial language may have prompted the children’s attention to spatial information and improved their ability to solve spatial problems. Spatial language also may reduce the mental load involved in transforming shapes and help children represent the spatial relations used on the spatial analogies task.

The paper’s lead author is Shannon Pruden, assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University. The research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and an award from the National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Center program to the University’s Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center.

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