This study establishes an early link between spatial and mathematical skills
In a new study researchers from the University of Delaware and Temple University examined the relationship between spatial and mathematical skill in preschool children. This study asked three questions that had not been addressed in previous research. The questions were; can we develop an age-appropriate task for 3-year-olds that tests their spatial assembly skills? Does spatial assembly relate to emerging mathematical skills even as young as age 3? And are SES (social economic status) and gender associated with differential spatial and mathematical skill levels at this early age?
Participants in this new study were 102 preschoolers (55 boys, 47 girls) between the ages of 3 years and two months and four years old recruited from Head Start facilities (42) with all but one child classified as lower- SES); private preschools (31), all but one child classified as higher-SES); and a university-related (UR) preschool (26; 18 higher-SES and 8 lower-SES). All children were native English speakers and had no identifiable vision or language problems. Parents had filled out and returned 14-item survey that requested mother’s educational level.
For the study children were individually tested in a quiet room seated across the table from the experimenter. The children had started with a training trial in which two blocks were placed on the table and the experimenter had told the children that they were going to make “these pieces look like the one” (the model). Then the experimenter had connected incorrectly and asked the children to confirm if the pieces had matched the model. The experimenter did point out the mistake if the children did not recognize the error. Then the blocks were arranged correctly to match the model. In the last test the experimenter disconnected the blocks, and placed the blocks in front of the child and then asked the child to make the blocks look like the model.
The researchers used two types of scoring; Matching Scoring which gave the children one point for each of the six designs for which the y matched the model 100% correct. The second scoring was dimensional in which the first part rated accuracy relative to the central piece of the design referred to as the “base”. The base was the largest piece or the piece that had the most pieces connected. One point was given for each component piece on each of the three independently scored dimensions.
A point was given for vertical location if a component was on the correct level of the design compared with the base. Rotation was scored by determining if a pieces axis was oriented correctly with respect to the long axis of the base piece (parallel or perpendicular to it). A translation point was given if a component piece was placed over the corrected pipes in relation to the base.
The study revealed children who were better at copying block structures were also better at early math and also found that by age three, children from low-income families were already falling behind in spatial skills, likely as a result of more limited experience with blocks and other toys and materials that facilitate the development of such skills. And parents of low-income toddlers reported using significantly fewer words such as "above" and "below" with their children.
The researchers write in their conclusion “performance of TOSA (test of spatial assembly) reveals that three year olds have much to learn. "This study also establishes an early link between spatial and mathematical skills, with other research suggesting that this link strengthens with time."
In closing the research team comments “Blocks are relatively affordable and block-building activities can be structured as a cooperative social activity that facilitates the use of spatial language both between children and between children and their teachers. Thus, there appears to be little practical reason that blocks cannot be used successfully even in poorly funded schools. Additional research may support the view that block building can provide a ripe tool for intervention.”
Dr. Brian N. Verdine, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware and one of the study's authors explained “"Research in the science of learning has shown that experiences like block building and puzzle play can improve children's spatial skills and that these skills support complex mathematical problem solving in middle and high school.” "This is the first research to demonstrate a similar relationship in preschoolers."
This study is published in the journal Child Development.