What’s inside this article: A look at what spatial awareness is and why it’s important. Signs of spatial awareness problems in kids and what may cause those problems. Games and play-based activities to help children of all ages practice and develop spatial awareness.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.
Spatial awareness tells us our position relative to objects around us and the relative position of objects to each other.
For example, if you reach for your water bottle beside you, you know exactly how far to extend your arm to pick it up. That’s because you’re aware of yourself and the distance between yourself and the water bottle.
Another example is if you drop a toy on the floor and it rolls under the sofa, you know to look behind or underneath the sofa because you understand the toy’s likely position, even though you can’t see it.
Why Is Spatial Awareness Important
There are many reasons why spatial awareness is important. We use this skill daily in more ways than we realize.
Understanding the position of ourselves and objects is crucial and affects things like:
- Social Skills: It’s needed to understand and respect personal space and other social functions.
- Motor Skills: It helps you navigate your environment, prevents you from banging into tables, and allows you to perceive how other objects and people around you are moving.
- Academics: Spatial awareness helps us understand sentence structure and grammar and mathematical concepts, like arranging numbers and geometry.
- Proprioception: Proprioception is one of our senses – it’s our sense of body awareness. We have sensory receptors in our joints, muscles, and skin that tell us what our body is doing. Perception issues may be linked to challenges with spatial awareness.
Signs of Spatial Awareness Challenges in Kids
Spatial awareness develops throughout childhood. Remember when your child was just a baby trying to grasp objects for the first time and missing them? That’s just the very beginning when this skill starts emerging.
The following list may indicate challenges with spatial awareness in children beyond an age where they are expected to have these skills.
- Trouble respecting personal space
- Difficulty in school with reading, writing, or math
- Coordination problems, such as appearing clumsy, being unable to throw or catch a ball, misses if trying to kick a ball, bilateral coordination difficulties
- Looks down at their feet while walking because they stumble otherwise
- Misses mouth when self-feeding
- Problems understanding directions like left vs. right and up vs. down
- Trouble following instructions with directions such as “your shoes are beside the door” or “the towels are under the sink”
- Writes vertically instead of horizontally or starts sentences in the middle of the page.
What Causes Challenges with Spatial Awareness?
Multiple areas of the brain play a role in spatial awareness, and typically, this skill starts developing in infancy.
However, there are several reasons a child may have trouble developing spatial awareness, such as:
- Sensory processing disorder, which occurs when sensory signals are not organized and processed into appropriate behavioral responses.
- Dyspraxia, a brain-based motor disorder
- Cerebral Palsy, which is a group of disorders affecting movement and coordination
- Turner Syndrome, which is a chromosomal abnormality
- Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD), kids with NVLD are not nonverbal, as the name suggests, and have no difficulty reading. It’s a visual-spatial learning disability. They have difficulty processing visual-spatial sensory information, which can cause problems with math, executive function, and fine motor and social skills.
Improving Spatial Awareness
You can improve spatial awareness skills with practice. Regularly discussing locations and distances helps reinforce those concepts. As well as play-based activities that help children practice and use their spatial awareness skills.
Certain hobbies promote spatial awareness, like drawing and building with lego. Even video games, like Minecraft, where you must manipulate objects and build, or puzzle games like Tetris, help develop spatial awareness.
An occupational therapist can help target specific skills impacted by deficits in visual-spatial awareness.
Spatial Awareness Activities
Want to practice with your child? Try some of the following activities:
Depending on your child’s age and abilities, different types of puzzles help practice spatial awareness skills. Shape sorters, jigsaw puzzles, peg puzzles, and 3D puzzles are all options.
These shape puzzles are a great choice. They come with a deck of 50 cards, and wooden shapes which children can put together, creating the image on the card. There are so many things kids can make, it offers great practice.
For older kids, another great puzzle activity is Mental Blox. It’s similar to the puzzles above, only kids use three dimensional shapes to recreate the images.
Find The Block
This is such an easy game to play – it doesn’t have to be a block; it could be a favorite toy or plushie, but we always use a block.
Hide the object somewhere within the room and use directional instructions to tell your child where it is and have them find it.
For example, “The block is on the bottom shelf of the bookshelf, to the left of the TV stand”
Build an Obstacle Course
The ability to maneuver through an obstacle course requires spatial awareness. Should you climb over that or crawl under it? You can create obstacle courses in your home using chairs, couch cushions, tables, etc.
Or, turn the playground or your back yard into an obstacle course.
Play a game of follower the leader and show your child how to maneuver through the playground equipment, providing help if needed.
Block play is super important in early childhood, Children should have the opportunity to play and build with a variety of blocks, from small lego to large interlocking blocks, wooden blocks, and even large foam blocks.
As children arrange (and rearrange) blocks, they become more aware of space and positioning of objects. You can also use block play as an opportunity to practice verbal instructions, for example “Place two blue blocks on top of one red block”.
Teach Personal Space
If a child has poor spatial awareness they may invade the personal space of others because they simply aren’t aware that their body is too close to another person’s.
When that’s the case, you may need to explicitly teach the concept of personal space, offering concrete ways to help them understand socially acceptable proximities based on the relationship they have with different people.
There are a lot of great children’s books that teach this concept and several activities you can use – read how to teach children to respect personal space here.
Sports and Physical Activity
Basketball, baseball, soccer – any game involving a ball helps develop spatial awareness. Learning how hard to kick the soccer ball so it reaches the net, how to dribble the basketball , how to swing a baseball bat just in time to hit the ball thrown by the pitcher – these athletic skills all require spatial awareness.
Gymnastics and dance – Both require and help build a strong sense of body awareness and a better understand of proximity to others and to the objects around you.
Non-organized physical activity – Your child doesn’t need to join an organized sport, there are benefits to all physical activity. Whether it’s biking, swimming, or just running around the yard. Check out this animal-themed workout for kids and give it a try.