Why is it so critical to promote spatial literacy in the classroom?

Find out in this Q&A with the author of Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills through Spatial Learning

About the author

Dr. Mary Jo Pollman

Mary Jo Pollman, Ph.D., is a professor of early childhood education at Metropolitan State College of Denver. A former lab school teacher at Florida State University as well as a kindergarten, first, and third grade teacher, Dr. Pollman has continued her study of early childhood education in Australia, Italy (Reggio Emilia), Japan (fellowship), Germany, and Canada. Her fascination with the work of Friedrich Froebel, a trained mathematician and architect and the father of kindergarten, led her to walk in the footsteps of Froebel in Germany in 2007.

At the national level, Dr. Pollman is Vice President in charge of membership of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE) and a member of the Professional Development Panel of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

A frequent presenter at NAEYC, NAECTE, and ACEI, Dr. Pollman has written many articles and position statements dealing with issues in the field of early childhood.


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Q: In your new book Blocks and Beyond, you mention that children in the U.S. score lower on spatial and geometric sections of standardized tests than they do on number sense and problem solving. What exactly is spatial development?

A: Spatial development is akin to spatial literacy, which is the ability to problem-solve operations by means of

  • mental rotation (a spatial skill that involves thinking about objects in different spatially oriented ways)
  • perspective change (visualizing things from different perspectives)
  • coordinated use of space (coordinating how different space is used in relation to other space)
  • representation (representing one object to mean another object or place as in a map), and
  • reasoning (ability to understand how items are arranged in space and in relation to one another).

Q: What has research shown about the relationship between spatial development and future math ability?

A: Research has shown that there is a relationship between spatial development and overall mathematics. In other words, it is a predictor of overall math scores. Children who score high in spatial and geometric sections of the TIMSS [Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study] tend to score higher in overall math scores.

Q: How can spatial development be tied to progress in other academic areas?

A: Spatial development is inextricably related to science because science includes an ability to use the senses to observe and make observations about the environment in the life, physical, and earth sciences. Spatial relationships in shapes, sizes, and location of objects provide information to help children discriminate between objects in the environment. These same skills are needed in the visual arts, social studies (mapping), and technology.

Q: How can you recognize a "spatially talented student," and what is the danger of failing to recognize such a student?

A: A spatially talented student can be recognized by his intense interest in shapes and forms and his reasoning skills with shapes. These students may not be recognized as gifted because sometimes they rely on reasoning with shapes rather than words and they may feel left out of the mainstream. The danger in not recognizing this type of child is that they are attracted to such technical fields as airplane design, architecture, software engineering, mechanical engineering, industrial design, surgery, advanced mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, and chemistry. There is a shortage of people in many of these fields as indicated by the low percentage of people entering the STEM fields in the United States.

Q: For a teacher who wants to promote greater spatial development, what types of activities or materials do you suggest she incorporate into her curriculum?

A: A teacher needs to understand spatial and geometric terminology and use it in structured and naturalistic settings with children who are experimenting with three dimensional blocks, two dimensional figures, lines, and points to promote spatial development.

For example: A teacher reads The Three Billy Goats Gruff. She discusses the bridge and the parts of the bridge. Children are shown pictures of beam bridges, log bridges, trestle bridges, covered bridges, and other types of bridges. She gives each child eight of one of the following: rectangular prisms, cubes, triangular prisms, arches, or popsicle sticks. The children then construct a bridge using any other materials they find. They then discuss the type of bridge they created, how secure it is, the lines, points, and flat surfaces of the bridges.

Q: What are some activities that would be appropriate for older students (say, up through 2nd grade)?

A: Using the Mathematics Focal Points*, children in second grade should be composing and decomposing two dimensional shapes such as quadrilaterals (trapezoids, parallelograms, rhombuses, rectangles, and squares) and using spatial reasoning to learn more about measurement, area, and fractions.

An example would be giving three children a rectangular piece of paper and having them divide the rectangle into four equal parts but requiring them to come up with the division in different ways. The teacher could then discuss measurement using standard measurement (inches and centimeters), area (length x width) of the rectangle, and fractional parts of 1/2, 1/4, 3/4, and 4/4.

*The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have identified "Curriculum Focal Points" of the most important math topics for lasting learning at each grade level pre-K–8.

Q: How did your own interest in spatial literacy develop?

A: It developed because I had a strong interest in blocks and this interest led me to follow the research, ponder why the U.S. did not score very well on the TIMSS Tests in geometry, travel to different countries, and examine the spatial representations in those countries. I wanted to express what I knew to be true about it in order to help teachers.

Q: If you could see one practice adopted across the board that would contribute to the development of spatial literacy among young students, what would that be?

A: All different kinds of blocks should be placed in classrooms. Unit Blocks need to be placed in every kindergarten room, as well as reproductions of Froebel's gifts**, and used in a way to promote geometric and spatial understandings. Teachers should be trained in how to use these materials effectively using geometric and spatial terms.

**Friedrich Froebel, a trained architect and mathematician, is known as the father of kindergarten. His work centered on keen observation of forms of nature and forms of design and then representing them using specially designed "gifts," which consisted of two and three dimensional figures. "Gifts," representing symbolic ideas in concrete form, were given to a child in self-directed activity to show the child's knowledge of the world.

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Blocks and Beyond: Strengthening Early Math and Science Skills through Spatial Learning

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