Elizabeth Gunderson, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Gunderson, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Temple University

Spatial, Meet STEM (Preschool to Elementary)

If kids show spatial smarts at 5, how do they handle the number line at 6? Does it also help with advanced math up to 8 and, therefore, the world of STEM?  

Number lineIn the opening weeks of many 1st-grade classes, kids are introduced to the “number line”—the symbolic horizontal line that students can use to plot an infinite number of digits to the right or left of a zero.

So where might the digits be plotted if, say, the students were asked to place a zero at one end, a 1,000 figure at the other end, and then asked to show where a number such as 450 belonged?

We tested 152 1st and 2nd graders with such tasks at various intervals, and our findings support the growing body of evidence that early spatial skills correlate with an ensuing edge in the ability to estimate locations of numbers across distances.

At the outset of our study, we gauged students’ early spatial skills by asking them to complete a square shape by choosing the correct piece from among four alternatives. We later introduced them to exercises with the number line to see if there was a spatial and number line correlation.

As most teachers who work with the number line know, many kids first try to plot the digits logarithmically, typically squishing all the numbers to the line’s right end point. But the spatially advanced students stood out. As we followed this group to the end of their first school year, we could see that high performers in the early spatial task were also the high performers on the number line.

It is not yet clear to us why early spatial skills help with numerical estimations across distances, but some experts in our field hypothesize that developing a finer sense of spatial relationships might help children with the extrapolative thinking required for advanced estimation skills.

Since many in our field are interested to see how this early spatial skill extends to other subjects such as arithmetic calculations, we also followed a smaller group of students even further, to age 8, documenting still more correlations between spatial skills at 5.5 and improved performance with complex math.

In our tests of this smaller group of students at 8, we gauged their calculation skills with a task that required them to approximate the answer. Again, our findings showed that strength in spatial knowledge at 5.5 correlated strongly with children’s skill at more advanced mathematical computations at 8.

When dovetailed with other findings in our field, we believe our findings in these recent studies have greater implications. Consider: With the growing evidence that spatial skills are malleable—teachable—many experts believe pre-k advances in spatial development will also improve children’s grasp of the number line and other mathematical estimation skills in the ensuing years.

With these skills now known to enhance students’ future success with science, technology, engineering and other mathematics disciplines, educators, parents and the students themselves should have a leg up.