In 2009, the U.S. ranked 20th out of 67 countries in science, way below the international average, and in 2012 the U.S. dropped another four spots in rank. In response, President Obama released a report on how to improve interest and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. There’s since been a huge educational push to incorporate more STEM principles into K-12 curriculum, with the hope that today’s children will be more likely to pursue STEM disciplines when they grow up.
But research is emerging that suggests children can learn STEM principles before they enter formal schooling. Specifically, research shows that spatial play – playing with puzzles, blocks and shapes – promotes spatial skills, which are essential for success in STEM disciplines.
You’re probably thinking: What spatial skills can a 2-year-old learn? Is playing with Legos really going to help my child become an engineer?
First, playing with spatial toys gives children multiple opportunities to learn spatial skills. For example, fitting a 3-D shape or a puzzle piece into its slot teaches children spatial transformation (i.e., the skill that makes you really good at moving an object so that it fits into your trunk). In fact, research shows that this skill is important for succeeding in higher STEM education like dental school, where students have to know (and mentally rotate) the 3-D structure of teeth.
Second, many research studies suggest early spatial skills may be important for developing STEM skills, specifically math skills. For example, research shows that spatial skills at age 3 predict math skills at age 4, and other research shows that spatial skills measured in first or second grade predicted children’s improvement in math performance at the end of the school year.
Although these studies only measured children’s learning over the course of a year, they provide initial evidence that spatial learning contributes to the development of STEM skills. So far, there is no direct evidence showing that spatial play in early childhood predicts STEM success in adulthood, but research has linked spatial play with spatial skills, which have been shown to be important for STEM success in adolescents and adults.
Another way spatial toys may promote spatial skills is by prompting parents to use spatial language with their children. For example, parents may use spatial language to describe objects in a way that draws children’s attention to the spatial aspects of the shapes, like calling a circle “curved” or describing a triangle as having three points. Similarly, parents may describe what the child is doing with the object, which can help the child conceptualize their spatial play (“Does it fit in there? It’s a rectangle, so try turning it again”). A longitudinal research study shows that parents’ use of spatial language at 14- to 16-months predicted children’s spatial language and performance on a number of spatial tests at age 4.
Although we need more research, young children may benefit from playing with spatial toys like blocks, puzzles and shapes. Playing with Legos may not give children all the skills they need to be astronauts and doctors, but playing with spatial toys may give them the hands-on experience they need to at least begin thinking like a scientist.