by Stacy Kramer OT Reg. (Ont)

Imagine that you are making your way through an unfamiliar crowded restaurant.  Your body would probably be at high alert, all senses working together to navigate through obstacles such as tables, chairs, and plants, without bumping into anyone or anything.  The ability to judge what is close to you, what is far away, which moving objects are coming towards you (e.g. the waiter carrying a tray or runaway toddler)   – these skills all come together to make up your spatial sense.

But our spatial sense does much more than allow us to get across the room safely.  This sense also allows us to have a mental map of our world, so that we can picture our living room, or the route to the nearest grocery store, without moving a muscle.   Our spatial sense helps our minds form pictures of our world which are accurate and unchanging.

Most people think of our spatial sense as being largely visual – we move through space by seeing our environment.  What is often overlooked is that our other senses, including our sense of sound, touch, and movement, make vital contributions to our understanding of space.  In fact, a person born without vision can access these other senses to move just as effectively through their environment as a sighted individual.  Blind artists have shown the ability to draw perfectly accurate representation of shapes, animals, even people – they are clearly showing the ability to mentally visualize these objects without ever using vision!

Spatial skills help lay the groundwork for success in math and science, plus contribute to mastery of a number of everyday functions (such as packing a bag or organizing a desk).  Elementary aged children need to draw on their understanding of space in order to properly set up their writing on the page.  Even younger children show an understanding of basic spatial concepts when they construct buildings out of blocks or begin to try to draw what they know.

Adults can help strengthen a child’s spatial sense by emphasizing spatial concepts when talking to a child – using words like top and bottom, close and far, up and down, to help children maintain a consistent sense of space.  Other activities that could help strengthen your child’s spatial skills:

  • Playing puzzles and construction games (including blocks and Lego’s) help build a child’s spatial awareness; these games also teach children how to mentally rotate an object (such as by turning a puzzle piece in your mind to see if it will fit).
  • Children who are learning how to write need a clear sense of top and bottom, and this sense can be gained through games with stickers (i.e. “put a sticker at the top of the page”).
  • In order to strengthen a child’s ability to mentally visualize shapes and other objects, an adult could hide a familiar object in a bag for a child to identify using only their sense of touch (they can feel what is inside the bag, but no peaking).
  • Finally, ball and balloon toss games help work on the ability to judge distances in space and to time movement effectively based on this spatial information.