What is Spatial Intelligence and Why Should We Care?

Spatial intelligence is crucial in many academic and professional fields. This ranges from engineering and science to graphic design and construction.

It is also a vital skill to help our children navigate through their daily lives. Yet, most of the standardized tests that are used in traditional school curriculums, do not adequately measure this ability, especially in those who are most gifted with it.

But what is spatial intelligence exactly?

Spatial intelligence is defined as the ability to generate, retain, retrieve and transform well-structured visual images. It involves how well a person processes information that is presented visually in one or more dimensions.

This is an example of a typical mental rotation test to measure spatial ability. There are also other different types of tests such as mental folding, spatial visualisation and visuo-spatial perception.

In a 2010 article, titled Recognizing Spatial Intelligence, neglecting spatial abilities could have widespread consequences in education.

Studies have shown that children with relatively strong spatial abilities tended to gravitate towards, and excel, in scientific and technical fields such as physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer science.

The authors noted that;

"While those with verbal and quantitative strengths enjoy more traditional reading, writing, and mathematics classes, there are currently few opportunities in the traditional high school to discover spatial strengths and interests.​"

In the early 1970s, Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SPMY) which is the longest-running longitudinal studies of gifted youth in world history ﹣ initiated by John Hopkins University, used the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to measure the analytical reasoning ability of the candidates.

Even though the participants were selected based on their exceptional quantitative and verbal ability, there was highly visible variability in the spatial abilities within the youth. 

SPMY then decided to move to other forms of measurement and one of it is by testing out spatial ability as a gauge.

The candidates’ progress have now been reviewed for over 25 years and the variability in their spatial abilities matches their educational and occupational outcomes.

The ones who acquired bachelors, Master's and doctoral degrees in science and engineering fields had especially strong spatial abilities compared to the rest of the candidates. 

Yes, such skills are only one ingredient of a person’s overall intelligence but research have suggested that spatial intelligence is an important predictor of achievement in STEM.

People often think that spatial intelligence is a genetically inherited trait or a gift that you were born with and it may be the case for some.

But, the good news is that spatial abilities can be improved with practice especially when it is cultivated at a young age.

Enhancing Spatial Abilities through Physical Exploration

Did you know that infants as young as 3 months may be capable of mental rotation? (Moore and Johnson 2020)

Experiments have confirmed that children perform better at tasks that require spatial intelligence when they are allowed to explore and handle objects.

Hence, a good way to boost your child’s spatial skills is by encouraging them to touch, move, and tinker objects around them.

A simple way to start is by providing your children with the right playing & learning tools such as building structures, construction games and structured block toys like wooden blocks and Lego.

When your children engage in these activities, it is also best for the parent to be involved as well to encourage more enthusiasm from their child.

Remember to actively guide them through the learn & play process and help your children recognize and imagine what shapes would look like after moving them around.

Boost your Children’s Spatial Abilities through Everyday Conversations

Children tend to pay closer attention to something when we engage them in a discussion about it.

Studies even suggest that there are clear correlations between spatial intelligence and spatial vocabulary. Kids tend to perform better on spatial tasks when they are guided with helpful words.

Consider these kind of questions when conversing with your child; (Newcome and Frick, 2010)






      Asking these types of questions can help encourage kids to pay more attention to spatial information they encounter in conversations and may also accelerate the development of their spatial skills.

      So seize everyday opportunities to include spatial thinking and reasoning when talking to your child.

      The goal is not to get your child to learn as many spatial terms as possible but to help them visualise better and develop a better understanding of the way shapes can be moved, transformed and fitted together.








      Newcombe NS and Fricke A. 2010. Early education for spatial intelligence: Why, what, and how. Mind, Brain, and Education 4(3), 102-111.

      Moore DS and Johnson SP. 2020. The development of mental rotation ability across the first year after birth. Adv Child Dev Behav. 58:1-33.

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