Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spatial Intelligence in the Classroom

by R.A. Hirsh
Source: Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Topics: Preschool, Middle Years (5-9), Preteen Years (9-13), Intelligence Defined, Visual-Spatial Learners
Spatial Intelligence in the Classroom

An early childhood curriculum that understands and respects spatial intelligence takes three guiding principles into consideration.

  1. Spatial intelligence requires an awareness of body and material boundaries.
  2. Spatial intelligence develops in stages (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964).
  3. Spatial intelligence reveals the child’s perceptions, interests, and understandings (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964).


Body Awareness Three-year-old children will often bump into, step over, and touch one another. This is due to a lack of body boundaries. An awareness of body boundaries is a foundation for self-control. Body boundaries can be explored through mirror play, gross-motor play, and outdoor play. Mirror activities can help the child to see where her body is, and how it moves in space.

Movement is extremely important in the young child’s life. Movement indoors and outdoors allows the child to develop an awareness of where her body is and how her body moves through space. This awareness will provide a foundation for being able to move the body skillfully and purposefully in the environment.

Material Awareness After a child has developed an understanding of her body boundaries, she can explore spatial intelligence through material awareness and boundaries.

Many times when a young child of two scribbles, the scribbles go off the paper. As the young child perceives her paper boundaries more clearly, she is able to stay within the boundaries of the paper. As the child’s material boundary awareness increases, she is able to keep her materials organized and in close proximity. She respects the boundaries of her materials and of others and can use the materials to express and develop her spatial potential.

Environmental Awareness Awareness of her place in the environment is also significant to the child’s spatial development. Preschool children will begin noticing and manipulating shapes in their play environment. They will notice similarities and differences in shapes and structures. They will begin to verbalize an understanding of structural opposites (tall/short, big/little). Opportunities to explore shapes sensorially lead to spatial development. Children will identify, move, create, and manipulate shapes in the environment. Blocks of different shapes and textures, puzzles, gears, nuts and bolts, and other objects of varying shapes and sizes allow children to move, manipulate, and explore shape concepts. Montessori equipment such as geometric solids, metal insets, trinomial and binomial cubes, and knobless cylinders allow children to explore the concept of shape in the environment.

Playing with blocks allows the child to represent their environment through the creation of a model. It also helps the child to develop balance and symmetry, and allows the child to create a scaled-down version of their environment.

Preschool and kindergarten children will be able to locate and recognize familiar landmarks and streets that symbolize the way to grandma’s house, preschool, or the park. An unexpected or alternate route to these places will often confuse a child. Young children are also able to recognize the functions of specific buildings in the environment. They recognize the firehouse, police station, school, library, and hospital and have an understanding of the functions of the buildings. The children are interested in landmarks in the environment that are directly related to their everyday life. Preschool and kindergarten children will represent their environment through block structures and art representation. The child might also be interested in simple mapmaking.

As children approach the end of the preoperational period of development, their egocentrism begins to be replaced by an awareness of, and eagerness to know and represent, others. The child acknowledges and recognizes that others may have a different point of view. The child is more interested in gaining a spatial perspective on where he/she is in relationship to others in the classroom, school, community, state, country, world, and universe. Map and globe activities will become important and relevant spatial tools. Maps and globes allow the child to begin to organize the environment and become aware of environmental boundaries that exists outside of the community. The child will create maps of her own.

Perceptions, Interests, and Understandings

In order to maximize the art experience for children and help them develop spatial intelligence, a question must be asked to clarify the purpose of arts education in the early childhood classroom. Lowenfeld and Brittain (1964, p. 52), authors of Creative and Mental Development, ask, “Do we study it [art] for our purpose of gaining insight into the child’s growth, his experiences, his emotions, his interest? Or do we want to evaluate the child’s work for the purpose of showing him his strengths, his weaknesses, his creative abilities, his skillfulness or his lack of skill; in other words, to classify him?” This query is extremely significant. When art is used as a tool of evaluation and classification of children, the creativity and individual expression of the child is lost. The child’s potential may not be fully realized in an evaluative art program. Many times adults value, classify, and judge children’s artwork without even realizing it. Oftentimes children are told their project “does not look like the model,” is messy, or was not made following the directions. Even positive comments can seem evaluative. Calling artwork “beautiful” or “pretty,” or telling the child it’s “done right” is evaluative. The young child has a need to create art for the sole purpose of creating art. The purpose should never be to please an adult, to copy an adult model, or to meet adult expectations. What an adult might deem as messy may be a physical, artistic outlet of an experience for a young child. When art is used as a tool to gain insight into a child’s perceptions, interests, and understandings, the experience itself becomes much more significant and the capacity for spatial development can be realized.

Development of Spatial Intelligence and Symbols

Lowenfeld and Brittain (1964) describe stages of artistic growth, which can be appropriately applied to spatial or perceptual growth. These stages reflect recognizable form development and the spatial representation capacity of the child.

Scribbling Children from the ages of two to four are typically in the scribbling stage of development. There is a progression of scribbling. Children begin with disorganized scribbling. (This disorganization can be applied to other spatial tasks as well.) Children who are engaged in disorganized scribbling make random marks on a page, scatter block materials, have difficulty completing puzzles, have a lack of body awareness, and demonstrate an inability to organize materials.

Disorganized scribbling is indicative of sensory play. Scribbles are made simply for the physical experience. The focus should be on the process of scribbling, not on a final product. The scribbling stage is necessary for the development of spatial intelligence and for creativity to flourish. Slowly, the scribbling becomes more controlled.

Controlled scribbling is indicative of the motor stage of play. The child begins to experiment with and manipulate materials. The child does not often attend to the boundaries. Marks frequently go off the paper and onto the table or the floor. Various unrecognizable forms and shapes begin to appear. Eventually the child will begin to name these forms. The naming process usually consists of the action in the activity. For example, the child will call his picture “running,” “hopping,” or “daddy driving” (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964.) The naming aspect of scribbling signals the beginning of an awareness of symbol functionality.

In addition to facilitating body, material, and environmental awareness, sensory perception is significant to spatial intelligence. Experiences which allow the child to use and develop the five senses are critical for the development of spatial intelligence. Lecturing to young children does not encourage full sensory development to take place. Experiences that allow the child to engage in sensory and motor play increase sensory perception. Materials that encourage sensory development include light tables, sand and water, textured materials, and natural materials.

Light tables offer children an opportunity to manipulate objects in space in response to the objects’ shape, color, warmth, and texture. Manipulating transparent shapes, colored sand, colored rice, leaves, seeds, flowers, and other objects on the light table can help the child explore his visual and tactile perception and appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the materials.

Sand and water play offer tactile and visual perceptual experiences. Materials with different textures, colors, shapes, smells, and sounds need to be available to children.

Montessori equipment such as kinetic cylinders, color tablets, knobless cylinders, touch boards, touch tablets, thermic bottles, and sandpaper letters encourage spatial growth.

Preschematic From the ages of four to seven, children move into the preschematic stage of development. This stage is characterized by recognizable forms; however, these forms are not detailed and do not have a theme (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964). The child experiments with body representations and forms are drawn all over the page. There is a respect for paper boundaries, but no baseline exists in the picture. Block forms become recognizable. The child is able to put together simple puzzles, is able to purposely create original and recognizable shapes, and is able to begin to manage the body appropriately through space and around others.

Schematic School-age children from ages seven to nine are typically involved in the schematic stage of development. Schematic activities are those that have a common and consistent theme. The ideas behind drawings, movements, projects, and blocks are related to one another. Common themes often are the human body and those that reflect an awareness of spatial relationships. Feelings and actions are incorporated into creative activities that reflect the child’s whole self. The development of the schema signifies less egocentric thinking and demonstrates a perception of how others influence the activity (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964).

Gang Age After a child has become more attuned to others, he/she enters the next stage of development, the gang age. The gang age occurs between the ages of nine and eleven. Children’s activities begin to become influenced by social pressures and acceptance. The child begins to express independence and separates from parents. This happens because of the greater understanding the child has of his/her self and the environment. The child develops a deeper understanding of what is real. Generalizations and characterizations are made in creative activities. The child moves away from the schematic representation to a more naturalistic representation (Brittain and Lowenfeld, 1964).

Responding to Symbol Development

It is necessary to respond to children’s symbol making appropriately. An adult can discuss the child’s artwork as the process is unfolding if the child is willing. Questions and comments such as, “I see you are using lots of yellow,” “Tell me about your picture,” and “I can see you are working hard” are appropriate. Questions and comments such as “What is that?” “The sun is yellow, why would you make it green?” and “You’re not doing it right,” are evaluative and judge the child and would be inappropriate.

The child’s presentation of spatial symbols can suggest evidence of a particular developmental stage. The symbols can also be used to assess a strength or challenge that may exist in a spatial domain.

Credits to Lee Phooi Yin (T4)


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