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Study: Early Spatial Learning Promotes Math Competency

Researchers at the University of Chicago are offering more evidence that exposing kids to spatial learning at an early age helps them to better understand math concepts when they're older.

In February, we reported on a university study that found that kids who played with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 had better spatial skills when assessed at 54 months old.

A new paper, "The Relation Between Spatial Skill and Early Number Knowledge: The Role of the Linear Number Line," which was published in the current issue of the journal Development Psychology, further explores the connection between that exposure and an improved understanding of the number line and better ability to solve math problems.

"We found that children's spatial skills at the beginning of 1st and 2nd grades predicted improvements in linear number line knowledge over the course of the school year," said Elizabeth Gunderson, the paper's lead author and a university postdoctoral scholar, in a university news release.

Psychologist Susan Levine, a co-author of the paper, said the study results "suggest that improving children's spatial thinking at a young age may not only help foster skills specific to spatial reasoning but also improve symbolic numerical representations."

The researchers based their conclusions on the results of two experiments. One involved 152 1st and 2nd graders from five urban schools who were tested at the beginning and the end of a school year to see how well they could locate numbers on a number line running from zero to 1,000. The kids who'd shown the strongest spatial skills when tested at the beginning of the year also showed the "most growth in their number line knowledge" throughout the school year, the university said.

The second experiment studied 42 children, who were tested for spatial knowledge when they were 5-and-a-half, and for number line knowledge at about age 6. When the kids were 8, they were tested on their calculation skills.

Early, robust exposure to spatial learning—playing with puzzles, putting shapes together to make recognizable objects—not only can help kids better understand math, but can also help with other tasks such as reading maps and understanding diagrams about how to assemble things.

And developing these skills has shown to be important if students are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, the researchers said.

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