A 5-year-old in my class does fine when he's in one place, but moving around seems to leave him bewildered. He can't find his way to the bathroom or to the people or things he is looking for. I realize this is the start of a new school year, but he has been in this school for two years. How can I help him?

We're all very familiar with children who have trouble processing sound. They have what we call "auditory processing" and/or language problems. We're also very familiar with children who have trouble coordinating their movements. (These children may appear to be uncoordinated.) But we're much less familiar with an equally important area of processing information or sensations having to do with what we see. We call this "visual-spatial processing" or "visual-spatial thinking." It has to do with all the steps we typically use, from:

  1. seeing something
  2. to making sense out of what we see
  3. to being able to remember it
  4. to being able to problem-solve through that knowledge

Understanding Spatial Relationships

Through this process, we figure out how to search for missing objects or how to get to the kitchen. At school, children figure out where the bathroom is after they've been there a couple of times. They construct a picture in their minds that helps them to navigate around.

Some of us, however, can create pictures of specific things, such as a table or a chair, but can't picture the spatial relationships among those things. Even at age 2, and without having much language, a child might go to an unfamiliar house with his mother who is in the kitchen talking to the other mother while the children are in the playroom. If the visiting child wants to see his mother, he may figure out how to get back to the kitchen to find her. Another child, who is in the same situation, perhaps even at 4, may not have that internal road map, so he panics and starts crying. This second child, like the little boy in your class, isn't as strong in the area of "visual-spatial processing."

There are many different components to visual-spatial thinking: Figuring out where the playroom is in relationship to the kitchen is one of them. Eventually, doing geometry and other high-level mathematical thinking will depend on this ability to picture things in space.

Strengthen With Practice

When a child has difficulty figuring out the relationships among things he sees, we need to strengthen his capacity. As is the case with any skill, the more he practices, the better the child will become at it. It's important to remember, though, that the way you practice it is the way you learn it. So if you practice something like visual-spatial processing by simply memorizing pictures, you're improving only your rote memory. You memorize the picture, what the teacher looks like, and what the bathroom looks like, but you still won't understand the relationship between the two or how to get from the teacher to the bathroom and back to the teacher.

On the other hand, you can start out with simple tasks such as going to one side of the room and then back to the other while you can still see both sides of the room. Then you can progress to more complicated tasks such as going to the bathroom and finding your way back to the teacher. In this way, you're exercising the ability to see the relationships among the things you see.

Provide Motivating Experiences

Let's look at an example of a toddler who is beginning to explore space and needs help constructing road maps. Imagine that you take his favorite toy or favorite food and put it in a different place. Then you say to him, "Johnny, you look like you want to play with your favorite car. Where could it be?" Now you go searching together. You might notice that Johnny, who doesn't have a good visual-spatial road map, doesn't search in all four corners of the room. So you speculate aloud, "Where else could it be? Where shall we go next?" With this kind of support, the child learns to explore the entire room. And as you do that over and over to look for cars or where his daddy is, he'll get better and better at it.

The key is to practice visual-spatial problem solving with highly motivating situations. Start very simply, gradually making the task more complicated.

Make It Interesting

For our preschool child, who can't find his way to the bathroom, practicing takes place with the same basic principle. You might want to:

  • Give him clues, asking him to find something he wants. With your helpful hints, he becomes a systematic searcher and learns to construct space.
  • Play "hide-and-go-seek." Begin by hiding behind things that are not too difficult to discover, then eventually expand to "hide-and-go-seek" and treasure-hunt games that involve several different rooms.
  • Eventually, take little outings where he is expected to go to the bathroom and back. Make it easy by walking with him the first time, all the way back and forth. The second time, walk with him halfway, and stand halfway between him and the bathroom, so his task is only navigating halfway between you and the bathroom. Eventually, move on to finding the office at school, and different parts of the playground. Do this until he really has mastery of the whole school environment.

As you practice, always remember to do it in the context of high motivation. And make sure to divide the task into smaller tasks so that he can be successful with each one. If it's too hard for him, make it even a little simpler, until he can expect success in navigating space in order to achieve his goals.