Finding Their Way: Family Engagement with Digital Math Activities Helps Children Develop Spatial Skills

Nov 9 2017

Authors: Heather Sherwood and Ashley Lewis Presser, Education Development Center

Heather Sherwood and Ashley Lewis Presser of the Education Development Center describe ways families can build children’s spatial skills as part of their mathematical thinking. 

Young children’s use of mobile devices is growing. And with this comes an opportunity to explore the extent to which tablet technology and apps can help children strengthen their early math skills. In our project Finding Our Way Around, researchers from Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International are working with developers at WGBH – a public media pioneer – to create a set of digital (iPad) and hands-on activities for preschoolers, teachers, and parents that focus on cultivating children’s spatial vocabulary and navigational skills. The project, funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, is part of WGBH’s First 8 Studios work, which focuses on learning from research while also giving teachers and children “a voice in the digital media development process.”

Young children’s mathematical knowledge strongly impacts and predicts their future success in school. Yet most math programs for preschool-age children focus on the development of basic math skills, such as counting and shapes, and few introduce more sophisticated skills, such as spatial thinking. Learning about spatial thinking can help children use and understand vocabulary, such as left, right, above, below, inside, around, on top of, between, and next to, as well as help them understand navigational concepts, such as using landmarks and following a path from one location to another.

What we developed: A module of learning activities for preschoolers and parents to engage in to foster spatial orientation knowledge and vocabulary. The module includes digital and hands-on activities as well as books, mealtime activities, and interesting things to do during everyday travel. Based on previous research, the team developed the digital activities in a way that can be experienced either individually or as a social, collaborative experience between family members. In addition, since hands-on activities and manipulatives are important for a child’s development and cannot be replaced by technology, these digital activities were complemented by hands-on experiences. The full set of activities is free and can be found at:

What we learned: Our research study examined the ways in which parents engage with preschoolers using a variety of spatially focused activities, and examined children’s learning as a result. We learned that:

  • preschoolers demonstrated more spatial knowledge after engaging in these activities
  • preschoolers require less support from parents on spatial thinking tasks after learning with these activities
  • digital and hand-on activities should be enjoyable for both parents and preschoolers

We assessed children’s learning through an individually administered assessment that used a rich set of manipulatives to create play-based assessment tasks that were fun and engaging. For example, some activities asked preschoolers to move characters within a two-story playhouse-like structure, and others asked preschoolers to navigate within a large picture-based map.

 Overall, the findings also suggest that these or similar spatial thinking activities are a fun, engaging way to generate beneficial learning experiences in general for families with preschoolers. Below, we provide parents and caregivers with some examples of spatial activities we used in the study that support parent and child engagement and the development of spatial ability while they do simple, common, everyday activities in and out of the home, with and without digital tools. 

Map Adventure App

Map Adventure App

Spatial Activities to Do at Home   

Reading Time: Select books to read together that focus on spatial thinking skills like navigation, landmarks, or compasses, such as There’s a Map on My Lap!, Lucy in the City, or Follow That Map! While you are reading, ask your child to point out specific things such as landmarks or map symbols. You can also ask your child to retrace the route a character took, or ask your child to name things in pictures by giving spatial clues (such as, “What is next to the dog in the picture?” or “Can you show me what is to the left of the fire truck?”).

Mealtime: Preparing food together is a great way to practice using spatial vocabulary. Ask your child to assist you in making simple meals, such as a turkey and cheese sandwich. When you are talking about how to make the sandwich, use spatial words and phrases like, “Put cheese on top of” or “Spread the butter around the bread.”Or have your child help set the table, talking about where things are placed, such as, “The cup goes next to the plate” or “Put the fork on the left side of the plate.

 Playing Digital Apps Together:Map Adventure (free!) Playing digital games together not only provides practice with using spatial vocabulary and navigation, it also provides moments for bonding and collaborative play. When you are playing together, practice emphasizing spatial vocabulary that is modeled in the games. Point out landmarks, discuss routes taken on maps, and ask your child to find items in the games by describing their location.

For example, when playing an app or activity with a map, such as the Map Adventure app below, ask your child to be the “teacher,” and give verbal directions to help you navigate routes. To make it more challenging, ask your child to try to tell you which path to take without using physical cues, such as pointing.

Spatial Thinking on the Go

Map Adventure App

Map Adventure App

Play Neighborhood iSpy! Use words like above, below, left, right, near, next to, or in front of when giving hints on what the object is. Focus on the location of the object rather than on features like color or shape. For example, “I spy something behind the tree!”

Act as a Spatial Tour Guide: As you are walking, riding a bus, or driving in a vehicle, narrate your journey! Take turns saying the direction each time you make a turn (such as, “We just turned left”). Or list landmarks that you pass on the left and right. To make it challenging, reverse the game by saying an object and having the other person call out if it is on the left or the right. 

Combine Digital and Hands-on Activities: After playing activities or apps that focus on spatial thinking, like Map Adventure, practice using what you’ve learned when out and about. When you are at a park or playground, pick a landmark and ask your child to lead you there by following your directions. Use words such as between or next toin your directions, as shown below. For a harder challenge, ask your child to pick a landmark and give you the directions on how to get there! 

Activities that build children’s spatial thinking can be fun and engaging ways for parents and caregivers to interact with preschoolers, and are a great way to combine technology with physical activity. Try them out and share your story with

Special thanks go to our full team, including Ximena Dominguez, Jillian Orr, Danae Kamdar, Phillip Vahey, Mollie Elkins, Deborah Rosenfeld, Jaime Gutierrez Sarah Grady, and Britta Bookser.