Scrabble vs. building blocks: Which improves spatial skills?

(Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers scanned the brains of 8-year-olds to compare how playing with blocks or playing the board game Scrabble affected spatial processing. This kind of processing includes mental rotation, which involves visualizing what an object will look like after it is rotated.

“Block play changed brain activation patterns. It changed the way the children were solving the mental rotation problems; we saw increased activation in regions that have been linked to spatial processing only in the building blocks group,” says Sharlene Newman, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University.

MRI scans
Brain scans show increased activation in the anterior lobe of the cerebellum and the parahippocampus during the second mental rotation test after children played with blocks. (Credit: Indiana University)

The findings build on previous studies that show children who frequently participate in activities such as block play, puzzles, and board games have higher spatial ability than those who participate more in activities such as drawing, riding bikes, or playing with trucks and sound-producing toys.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, also suggests that training on one visuospatial task can transfer to other tasks. In this instance, training on the structured block-building game resulted in transfer to mental rotation performance.

“Other studies look solely at behavioral changes, such as the improved performance on measures of spatial ability,” Newman says. “We’re actually scanning the brain.”

Mental rotation

Researchers placed 28 8-year-olds in a MRI scanner before and after playing one of the two games. Play sessions were conducted for 30 minutes over the course of five days.

To create an equal distribution of spatial ability between the two groups from the start, the children were divided evenly according to several categories that have been linked to differences in spatial ability: gender, age, musical training, mathematical skill, and socio-economic status.

The two groups of 14 children also took a mental rotation test while inside the scanner, both before and after playing the games. The test—a longstanding measure of spatial visualization and analysis—presents two versions of the same letter, and the children had to decide whether the second letter was simply a rotated version of the same letter or a rotated mirror image of that letter.

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There were no differences in mental rotation performance between the two groups in either the brain activation or performance during the first rotation test and scan. But the block play group showed a change in activation in regions linked to both motor and spatial processing during the second scan.

The group who played board games failed to show any significant change in brain activation between the pre- and post-game scans, or any significant improvement on the mental rotation test results.

Insofar as the spatial abilities of 8-year-olds are still developing, the change from the first scan to the second scan might reflect a shift in the strategy used to solve the mental rotation problems, Newman says.

In other words, as children develop their spatial abilities, they may move from a piecemeal strategy in which they analyze the internal relations or parts of an image to a holistic strategy in which the image as a whole is mentally rotated.

“The block play group showed a change in activation in regions linked to both motor and spatial processing,” Newman says. “This raises the possibility that the block play group changed how they were performing the mental rotation task after training.”

The LaCrosse Family Business Trust and the Indiana University Imaging Research Facility supported the work.

Source: Indiana University