Beth Casey, Ph.D.
Beth Casey, Ph.D.
Professor, Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology
Boston College

Closing the Gap Raises the Game (Preschool to High School)

By learning how to improve girls’ spatial skills, we can also advance the boys

Generally, spatial skills in early childhood and elementary classrooms are left as extras—just activities to do during free play time, like playing with blocks and solving puzzles. However, like with math and reading activities, we’ve found that both girls and boys benefit greatly from focused spatial activities in the classroom that are specifically designed to develop spatial skills.

What is exciting is that, although both the boys and girls were found to improve
from these kinds of focused activities, the girls were able to benefit more.
Why is this particularly important? It is significant because there is now consistent
Puzzleevidence that girls have greater difficulty solving spatial problems across the age
span, starting as early as age four.

In trying to understand these differences, it’s worth considering the “bent twig
theory”—you grow and develop skills through interactions with your environment
that are strongly driven by your interests. So, in young humans, it’s been shown
repeatedly in research that boy children show a strong attraction to the spatial
properties of their world, like running cars in pathways around the room or playing
with blocks by building high structures and then watching as they fall

Research has supported this gender difference, and our research shows that even in
middle school and high school, when asked to build something interesting with
blocks, boys will build taller, structurally more complex constructions that focus
on the balance properties of the structure, while girls are more likely to build horizontally—creating complex, beautiful patterns or representational
scenes, such as modeling the streets of Boston.

You may ask: Well, why does it matter if boys and girls interact differently with their
spatial world? Both our research and research conducted by others have shown
that across ages, for girls in particular, effective spatial skills predict high math
achievement scores. Furthermore, even as early as first grade, we found that the
girls who had higher spatial skills were able to solve arithmetic problems without
depending on concrete props, such as counting on their fingers or using counters
provided by the teacher. Instead, they were more likely to solve the problems in
their heads.

Interestingly, we don’t assess spatial skills like we do math and language skills. Yet a recent study with 400,000 students showed that spatial skills predicted choice of
science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors and careers. So if we
continue to ignore spatial skills in our educational system, many students with
the potential to excel in STEM will be ignored, and many students (girls in particular)
will not benefit from instruction in spatial thinking. This in turn may contribute to
their lack of choice of those STEM fields that depend heavily on spatial thinking.

If educators can find ways to deploy this new type of thinking to the classroom, we believe we’ll accomplish more by leveling the playing field between the genders. Most importantly, we’ll also raise the game itself to a higher level for all.