• Ms. Susan

Creating a Mental Map; Teaching Spatial Concepts through Problem-Based Play

We are three dimensional creatures living in a three dimensional world.


Spatial concepts, prepositions, positional words; these are the linguistic symbols we use to make sense of it all. Our development of these concepts starts as an infant as we learn to map out our own body and the sensations we feel within. Then, as we develop our crawling, scooting and hopefully walking skills, we refine these concepts further as we map out our world and how our body moves within the world to get our needs met.


Sounds simple right?


Until you look at this...


Our brains have to learn how to sense, move, comprehend and express these multiple directions and all the angle in between. And this doesn't really get into the concept of hidden objects with behind, under, etc. When we struggle with spatial concepts, it can affect our ability to construct a mental map which can affect our ability to follow directions, participate in sports and other social activities. This struggle in mental mapping can also affect our quantity concepts and math skills!


As I mentioned, we first learn spatial concepts while mapping our own body. If you notice your child struggling with spatial concepts, have them use their own body as the anchor. Have them touch their front/back; hand up/down; and don't forget to cross midline with right hand to left shoulder or left hand to right knee. Engaging your child in spatial concepts through their own motor movements first will strengthen the foundational way we all acquire these concepts.


After your child is showing some mastery with spatial concepts using their body as the map or anchor, start to include objects and object placement. Focus on only 1 pair at a time and I recommend starting with up/down and then in/out first. Keep your objects and phrasing consistent at first, such as by saying "Batman is going up; Batman is going down!". By including an action verb this will help make a mental concept that is observable and therefor easier to remember. By keeping the verb consistent and familiar you are allowing your child to focus on the novel information and learn the concept in a more passive manner, using less "brain power", which makes it easier to learn and then generalize as you begin to vary the contexts over time.


Here is my recommended order for teaching beginning spatial concepts:

  • up/down

  • in/out

  • on/off

  • close (as in near)/far

After these beginning ones, you can start working on higher level ones, such as:

  • front/back

  • over/under

  • beside/next to/between

  • above/below


You'll notice the first set are all clearly visible concepts, whereas the second set tends to involve more hiding and an larger visual field. Keep that in mind as you are teaching these concepts! How big of a "map" are you requiring of your child?


Additionally, as with all concepts, spatial concepts are learn best through goal oriented/problem-based play tasks. While we keep our language structure consistent, as mentioned earlier, it's also important to keep these concepts focused on a goal or problem to be solved. If our children learn these concepts simply by labeling picture cards, they will struggle to apply that 2D knowledge into our 3D world.


Some excellent problem-based spatial concept activities are:

  • Scavenger Hunts

  • Hide and Seek

  • Cooking (finding the materials and mixing it all up!)

  • Blocks

  • Trains and Cars

  • Doll houses

  • "How many (steps) to the ____?" change the action to get to a specific target and guess how many it will take. Think in all directions too (up to the top of a bookshelf, under a table, etc.)


Body Awareness and spatial concepts:

  • Simon Says

  • Freeze tag

  • Floor "swimming" lay stomach down on the floor with arms straight in front and bring one elbow to touch the knee on the same side, like a crunch/swimming motion; stay in one place at first then try to move around

  • Rolling in the grass

  • Snow angels (can be done with and without snow)

  • Obstacle courses

  • Playgrounds

  • Kickball and soccer

  • Flag football

Spatial concepts are literally everywhere! Incorporating them into your daily routines and problem-based play is simply a matter of actively engaging yourself to think about them more. By first building our child's own body map, we give them a foundation for mapping the world. By using concrete and consistent language, we allow our children to learn implicitly and by using goals and problems, we keep them engaged and motivated.


How are you going to boost your child's spatial awareness?


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