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My Favorite Activities to Develop Spatial Intelligence — Straight Ahead!

By Shari Edwards on January 16, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

The ability to think spatially is important to becoming a critical thinker and a problem solver, as well as a thinking reader. My goal is to help my students become proficient problem solvers. Research says that helping my students develop their spatial intelligence can strengthen their problem-solving skills in many significant ways.

So . . . I'm putting on my white coat and picking up my clipboard. Please help me examine the following practices for the optimal conditions our students need in order to develop these skill sets.

You might just find something you can take back to your own classroom!

Strategies and Activities to Develop Spatial Awareness and Intelligence

Keep globes and maps accessible to students.girl with globe

If you have a map carpet, check its placement. Turning it so that the top of the map faces north will keep the confusion down to a minimum. Last year's students actually brought this to my attention as I had it turned another way so it fit better in the space. I still have it turned the way they suggested. My students pay a lot of attention to that map. They sit on it as I read to them, and when a place name comes up in a story or lesson, they get really excited when they can find it on our U.S. map carpet; they are even more excited if they are sitting ON the location! I feel that they are developing spatially as they face me at the north of the map.

If you don't have a map carpet, keep your eye out for a discarded wall map on a roller. They are usually made of very durable material. Cut the map off of the roller and allow students to explore it while it is lying on the floor, with its top facing north, of course!

felt board mapProvide a black line of a U.S. map and a world map for each student to keep in their desk notebook. They can refer to it or color a state or country that we read about in social studies or a storybook.

When we read song lyrics or a story that refers to a location, my students are almost certain to try to find it on a map. Allow a little bit of time for it, if possible. The information will be much more likely to stick in their memory if they have a spatial understanding of its place in the world.

Label your classroom walls with directional words. Teach them about the compass rose.

While waiting in line, let students practice their directional awareness. Ask them tmagnet state mapo face north. Talk about how they know that they are facing the correct direction. Once they have found the other three directions, start asking them to face different directions. This is more difficult than it seems, but lots of fun! You also might ask for the name of a state they are facing, if you want to make it a more challenging task.

While walking to music, art, or recess, replace general directions to the line leader, such as “Turn at the next corner,” with directional instructions, “Turn west at the next corner.” Before very long, your students will be feeling their space in the school and the world.

measuring our spaceUse local landmarks that you know most students will be familiar with to help them understand the distance of a mile. In our neighborhood, Kmart is a mile from QuikTrip. The skating rink is also a mile from QuikTrip, but in another direction. Every one of my students has traveled the roads that lead to those destinations. I have a better chance of helping them visualize the distance when I name landmarks along the way.

Give students ways to measure their womap carpetrld, such as the measuring wheel pictured here.

Introduce your students to Google Earth. Hover over your school. Help them visualize what is under the roof of the school. If your school is one story, you can help them find exactly where the classroom is. If the roof were invisible, what would we see in the classroom? What would the furniture look like? What part of us would be easiest to see?

Look at your school neighborhood with Google Earth. Find your students' houses; travel the streets using Street View; and find landmarks. This is so excitstudents pointing southing to elementary students! (By the way, I’m a Google Person! I was caught in front of my school by the Google cam a few years ago. They think it's fun to find Mrs. Edwards walking to her car! I do, too!)

When speaking of a location in the school, gesture in the correct direction so your students can gain awareness of how the school is set in the world.

While traveling by bus on a field trip, point out landmarks, familiar streets, and other sights close to the school. I use Google Earth to show them where we will be going and what to look for along the way.boys build castle with blocks

Give students time to explore maps and spatial concepts. I have several social studies stations that I get out twice a month. My students enjoy working with hands-on materials and learn much more that way than they would with just a wall map or one in a book.

Click on the image below to download a map game called “Off the Map!” that will have your students traveling the country using the grid and their newly acquired directional skills!

Off the Map document





off the map game off the map game


  • Me on the Map by Joan Sweeney. This is a great book to help younger students visualiMe on the Map bookze their space in the world. It makes a nice point of reference when explaining maps. The illustrations show maps adjacent to the real world place. Every primary classroom should have this book.
  • The benefits of spatial thinking on learning.
  • Research and information on spatial development.


What Do You Think?

  • Did you see anything you'd like to try?
  • What strategies do you use to develop your students' spatial intelligence?


Comments (5)

this is great!

Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Love these, Shari! I always tried to work geography into our studies too. We also played a Geography type of Jeopardy game for teams...with categories such as Bodies of Water, Continents (2), and States(2). Each pocket had a point value and was filled with questions, so the teams could choose their amounts and then the team had to agree on the answer and point it out on a map. Adults might come into the room and they were always amazed at what 2nd graders knew about their world! I miss those times in the wonderful world of teaching!

Thanks Sharon! I like the Jeopardy idea with Geography as the topic. Having them refer to a map and explain their answer keeps the rigor up! I miss getting to visit your room when I was a coach and used to bring groups of teachers to observe your class. There was always something exciting going on!

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