0 to 2: "I Hold It!"

by Carla Poole

Newborn Annie is upset. She emits a high-pitched wail while flailing her limbs. Her father talks to her softly, gently tucking in her arms and legs and swaddling her with a soft blanket. He rocks her and croons a soft lullaby. Annie gradually calms, makes eye contact, and begins a little cooing duet with her dad.

Even when distressed, young babies are born equipped to respond to pleasant sensory experiences. The sight of a smiling face, the tactile pressure of a blanket, and even the scent of her father plays a role in a baby's ability to collect and organize herself. An emerging, unconscious "body sense" helps her orient herself in relation to other people and objects.

Combining the Senses

Young infants visually discover their bodies when they first notice their hands. When a baby can hold objects, he has reached a milestone in his ability to understand spatial relationships. For example, 6-month-old Jason holds a rattle and intently examines it. He shakes it, looks at it, shakes it again, and then brings it to his mouth. Proprioception — the sense of die position and movement of his own body — helps him control his movements. There are nerve endings in the joints and muscles in his fingers, wrist, and arm that send signals to his brain. His brain then sends signals back to his body, prompting further coordination of his vision, muscle control, and movement planning. Thousands of firing neurons in his central nervous system enable him to achieve his desired goal: to explore that interesting object with his mouth.

Moving Into the World

Babies continue to use this multiple sensory input to maneuver through space. Eight-month-old Maya and her mother are sitting on the rug. Maya leans over, pushes her hands down onto her mom's leg, then shifts some of her weight onto her arms. Then she slowly lifts her left knee and puts her foot on the floor. Finally, she pushes down on her foot and lifts herself into a semi-crouch position. Maya smiles at her mom and views the world from a new perspective.

This kind of self-initiated exploration gives Maya a lot of sensory information. The nerve endings in her ankle and foot tell her where the floor is and how hard she needs to push to get to where she wants to go. Her vestibular sense (or inner ear), helps her keep her balance and remain upright in spite of gravity. She is developing and executing a motor plan that will soon lead to crawling and walking.

Learning Spatial Concepts

Spatial concepts such as a sense of distance are learned through movement and exploration. Eighteen-month-old Jacob is putting some small blocks in and out of a container. This is a favorite toddler activity because it helps him think about many spatial relationships, such as in, out, full, and empty while giving his muscles practice in realizing these concepts. When a round block slips from his hand, Jacob watches it roll behind a shelf and out of his view. He walks over to where he last saw it and cautiously moves around the shelf. He finds the block and purposely picks it up. Jacob now knows the object has to be somewhere — even though he can't see it. If he moves himself around larger objects and into the most likely location, he just might find it. Enormous skill is involved here, including locating objects, orienting his position, and enacting his plan of action.

By age 2, toddlers begin to consolidate these skills during daily routines. They climb up onto the stool to reach the sink faucet. They look on the low shelf for their favorite toy. They play peek-a-boo and find you under a blanket.

The most effective way for children to gain body awareness and an understanding of spatial relationships is through active exploration. Jumping down onto a big pillow teaches them more about their bodies and spatial relationships than hearing a story about it or watching someone else do it. This activity simultaneously develops muscle strength, coordination, self-confidence, and thinking skills.

What You Can Do

  • Rub lotion on babies' legs and arms to help develop sensory integration and body awareness.
  • Play a finding game by putting a familiar object in an unusual location.

3 to 4: "It's Too Close!"

by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

While they are eating a snack together, 4-year-old Joseph's teacher says to him, "You have the longest eyelashes!" Looking straight ahead, Joseph asks, "Do they reach all the way out to the juice pitcher?" The teacher laughs and replies, "Not that far." Curious, Joseph wonders aloud, "Then how far?" Spontaneously, he holds up his finger and moves it slowly toward his eye until he feels it gently touch his lashes. Delighted with his experiment, he shares, "Now I can see and feel how far!" Later, Joseph and his friends have more fun checking out their eyelash lengths in a handheld, unbreakable mirror.

Preschoolers' understanding of spatial awareness is related to their bodily experiences. Spatial concepts are developed over time by involvement with concrete situations, as well as interactions with people and objects. As you can see with Joseph's inquiry about his long eyelashes, the notion of space for preschoolers is rather egocentrically based. It was important for Joseph to be physically involved in order to gain a sense of how long his lashes really are. And by observing the length of their eyelashes in the mirrors, the boys gain a sense of themselves in space in another visual way. With his use of the term "far," you realize that Joseph has some understanding of distance and space. By moving his finger closer and closer and using his body as a reference point, this validates basic understandings of spatial awareness. This shows an interesting relational quality between the child and his environment.

Experience Leads to Learning

While creating robots with play dough, 4-year-old Jack's figurine keeps falling over on his buddy's robot. After watching this happen a few times, Jack announces, "They are too close together. Move yours over, Ben. My robot's head is too tall." With that, Jack pounds the head down with his fist. Smiling, he says, "Now it's fixed!"

In order to develop their spatial awareness skills, preschoolers need different experiences. Jack's experiment with his play-dough robot helped him learn to fit things together and take them apart. Children need practice in rearranging and shaping objects such as play dough, and they need opportunities to look at and describe things from various spatial viewpoints (from the top or the side) to gain new perspectives.

Working With Blocks

Block play offers unique opportunities for preschoolers to become aware of space through me arrangement of objects and the positioning of one object next to another. For example, in the beginning, threes and fours wouldn't complete enclosures with blocks. Later, after they leam to close up spaces, they begin to name their enclosures ("farmyard" or "house"). Experiencing the concept of enclosure during block pky helps children mentally represent the abstract idea of space. However, it may still be difficult for preschoolers to visualize spatially whether or not their toy bear can fit in the cave they have just constructed.

Block play also offers preschoolers a chance to practice verbalizing and following directions by using words concerned with position and spatial awareness. For instance, threes can place one block on top of two others, or find the block outside of the castle.

It's All About Location

By age three, children develop an exciting interest in spatial details and enjoy giving directions. In response to the question, "Where is Miss Noriega's Room?" Mandi tells her mom, "Go down the hall. It's there." As a 3-year-old, her directions may not be complete or even totally accurate, but she does have a sense of the location in space. The ability of preschoolers to use prominent landmarks to denote the physical locations of objects helps them encode specific locations within their larger spatial environments. Four-year-old Angelina begins to make use of landmarks in her speech as she describes the location of objects to others. On the playground she tells her friend, "The hopscotch thing is behind the big tree."

Identifying Personal Space

By age 3, many young children are able to name the street on which they live, which indicates a further grasping of location and spatial awareness concepts. As a 4-year-old, my grandson Adam proudly tells everyone, "I live on Rockspring Street in San Antonio, Texas!"

As he approaches the group-time area, Stefan cries out indignantly, "Ling is sitting in my space!" It is very apparent that he understands the concept of space in a larger setting as it relates to himself and others. Three-year-olds are able to demonstrate that they can shift their gaze to objects or actions a distance away — and then back again — without becoming confused. Because 3-and-a-half-year olds seem to go through a period of uncertainty and uncoordinated motor control, they may have some difficulty with their spatial orientation during an activity like catching a ball. They may bump and stumble over their friends, or topple their blocks. However, by age 4, preschoolers become masters of space as they zip around outdoors on their tricycles.

Spatial skills related to activities like playing with graphics on the computer, drawing pictures, finding the way from one place to another, and recognizing geometric shapes are housed in the right-brain hemisphere, and will continue to develop very gradually throughout the early years.

What You Can Do

  • Introduce children to all kinds of spatial representational systems, such as a floor plan of your room, a street map, map of the country, or a globe. Work together to find different locations.
  • As you read picture books, point to where characters or items are located.

5 to 6: "I Can Run Farther!"

by Ellen Booth Church

"Hey, you're standing in my space!" remarks Lenore, a very spatially aware kindergartner. "I'm just standing in line!" says Sally, who is practically standing on Lenore, rather than next to her. These two very different perspectives on personal space typify the range of spatial awareness in kindergartners. Lenore and Sally have no idea that the "problem" they are dealing with is much more complex than standing in line. The ability to follow the direction to "line up at the door," and then stand in line with an appropriate distance between each other — not to mention follow each other without stepping on one another or falling down — takes a great deal of body-thinking skills, all of which fall into the spatial awareness category. But how often do we think about these skills when we ask children to do this daily kindergarten task?

Don't Step on My Toes

Spatial awareness can be defined as "an awareness of the body in space, and the child's relationship to the objects in space." This can include spatial orientation, which is the skill that allows children to understand and execute requests for them to "line up at the door" or "put their backs to the wall." These sorts of commands can rightfully confuse children because they have not developed an understanding of how their bodies operate in space.

Increased Body Awareness

Spatial awareness is also an important component skill to complex actions such as picking up a fork and putting it in the mouth, or pouring milk into a glass. How many times a week do your children have issues with all of the above? Probably plenty. This is quite normal at this stage of development. As kindergartners grow and develop, they work with and expand their spatial awareness, as well as their motor and vocabulary skills. The clumsy behaviors that you may have seen in your classroom earlier are now beginning to change. Children are following commands that involve both gross and fine motor skills with greater ease. By age 6, children are more aware of their body and are less egocentric. This is important, because one part of the earlier problem of understanding their bodies in space was a lack of awareness of others' space.

Slow Down — You Move Too Fast!

Another reason why some children may seem clumsy and unaware of their bodies in space is due to the fact that they are moving too fast. Five- or 6-year-olds' exuberance can totally overpower their spatial awareness, as well as their and fine and gross motor coordination skills. At this stage of development, most children need to move carefully and consciously in order to avoid collisions, trips, and spills. It's quite natural for a child to get so excited at an event that he seems to almost regress in motor skills. Try not to make a big deal over this, because you will only add embarrassment to the situation. You can happily and quietly remind the child to slow down, or offer to help. If you make light of it, the child will let it go quickly, then slow down and move on.

Use Your Words

Spatial awareness is also linguistic. The understanding of the positional words people use to define themselves in space is essential to spatial awareness. As children learn positional vocabulary and use it with their bodies, they develop spatial awareness. This is how children begin to develop an understanding of direction, distance, and location. Positional words are often seen and used in opposition. These include words such as: in and out, front and back, next to and between, left and right, or near and far.

Build Your Body

Sometimes low muscle tone can result in clumsy behaviors. Children who are sedentary tend to have soft muscles. Strong muscles are needed to support the body in standing, walking, jumping, hopping, and balance activities. When you're out for a class walk, instead of just strolling, add some intervals of fast walking that gets children's heart rate up and challenges their muscles.

What You Can Do

  • Help children create a "human obstacle course" outdoors, where they have to navigate over, around, and between their friends.
  • Practice personal space. Give each child a hula-hoop or rope circle to represent their personal space. What can they do within it?