Photo used with permission.
My son’s preschool teacher joked that parents should procure LEGOs at any cost-even if it meant taking out a second mortgage-because those little bricks are like nothing else when it comes to helping kids to develop strong math skills.
Recent studies bear out what that preschool teacher already knew – spatial skills can be an early predictor of creative potential in STEM fields, particularly in math. Great tools to help nurture and develop spatial skills? Yep – LEGOs, chemistry sets, building blocks and certain software games fill the need.
What is spatial ability? According to Johns Hopkins (where they have actually developed a test for this), spatial ability is “a specific talent that can contribute to success in mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, architecture, and other fields of study. People with strong spatial ability can imagine a shape from different viewpoints, can more quickly understand what something might look like backward, or might more effectively recall and recreate images and sequences of images.”
A sculptor looks at a wall of stone and from it an image or form emerges in his mind. His task is to pull that form from the block of stone. We readily agree that this is a creative ability. So where is the art in math and science? Without spatial skill and creative ability some of our important innovations would never have been envisioned much less built. Einstein, Tesla, Edison (and more recently I might add Hawking, Jobs and Musk) – all are or were spatial thinkers and/or tinkerers.
Yet enhancing spatial ability is not part of a typical academic curriculum. It is not measured or purposefully nurtured in our schools, but it probably should be if the results of these studies are taken seriously. Tech careers will continue to demand spatial skills, so what can parents do to support them?
In addition to improving a child’s numeracy skills and comfort level with math through a regular routine of introducing them to the math all around them, explore dimensional opportunities as well.
Hands-on activities, like those in the “Maker Movement” that require creativity, planning and hands-on construction are helpful for children to nurture this ability. As for taking out a second mortgage to help foster spatial skills, consider connecting with parents of older children who have outgrown their LEGOs. I wish I had done a better a job of keeping sets and instructions together so we could donate, trade or resell the kits when we were done with them.
Also explore software options for computer imaging and modeling. The Sims has an amazing home design feature. Freeware options like Soda Constructor were our family favorites. Newer options like Adobe Flash Creative Cloud (for a monthly fee) and free modeling software from AutoDesk 123D and Google SketchUp would also be worth investigating.
To learn more about spatial ability and follow links to the recent studies that inspired this post check out KQED’s Mind/Shift, “Why We Need to Value Students’ Spatial Creativity“ and The New York Times.