Children who are skilled in understanding how shapes fit together to make recognizable objects also have an advantage when it comes to learning the number line and solving math problems, research at the University of Chicago shows.
The work is further evidence of the value of providing young children with early opportunities in spatial learning, which contributes to their ability to mentally manipulate objects and understand spatial relationships, which are important in a wide range of tasks, including reading maps and graphs and understanding diagrams showing how to put things together. Those skills also have been shown to be important in Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
Scholars at UChicago have shown, for instance, that working with puzzles and learning to identify shapes are connected to improved spatial understanding and better achievement, particularly in geometry. A new paper, however, is the first to connect robust spatial learning with better comprehension of other aspects of mathematics, such as arithmetic.
"We found that children's spatial skills at the beginning of first and second grades predicted improvements in linear number line knowledge over the course of the school year," said Elizabeth Gunderson, a UChicago postdoctoral scholar who is lead author of the paper, "The Relation Between Spatial Skill and Early Number Knowledge: The Role of the Linear Number Line," published in the current issue of the journal Development Psychology.
In addition to finding the importance of spatial learning to improving understanding of the number line, the team also showed that better understanding of the number line boosted mathematics performance on a calculation task.
"These results suggest that improving children's spatial thinking at a young age may not only help foster skills specific to spatial reasoning but also improve symbolic numerical representations," said co-author Susan Levine, a leading authority on spatial and mathematical learning.
"This is important since spatial learning is malleable and can be positively influenced by early spatial experiences," added Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago.
Gunderson, PhD'12, and the research team reasoned that improved understanding of spatial relationships would help students figure out the approximate location of numbers along a line and could lead to better mathematics performance. They tested their idea with two experiments.