Spatial awareness helps us do things like read a map, put together IKEA furniture, trot up spiral stairs without bumping ourselves, and follow an instruction like: The keys are inside a basket under the table next to the door.
Spatial awareness is a complex cognitive skill that tells us our position relative to objects around us, and the relative position of objects to each other. It involves understanding the concepts of direction, distance, and location, and it’s at the heart of learning and performing countless tasks.
How Does a Child Develop Spatial Awareness?
By the time he’s 18 months old, your child has a basic understanding of spatial concepts. This is built on answers to the following questions, which he’s been learning since the day he was born:
What is my body?
To understand his position in relation to objects, a baby must first learn that he has a body and that his body has different parts. His sensory system is hard at work, taking in information every time he comes into contact with something. Things like swaddling, giving your baby naked time, and infant massage help support this learning. When he discovers that he has hands, they’re great tools for exploring and learning about his body.
What is the relative position of my body parts?
The proprioceptive sense tells us where our body parts are in relation to each other, and how much force is required for different tasks. Proprioception develops as a baby interacts with his environment and gets information through receptors in his skin, muscles, and joints.
Where am I in space?
The vestibular system uses information from fluid in the inner ear to tell us where we are in relation to gravity (standing vs. lying, for instance), whether we are moving or still and, if we’re moving, at what speed and in what direction.
What do I see?
Visual perception allows our brain to make sense of what our eyes see, and it develops as a child interacts with the people and objects around him in increasingly complex ways.
How do I get around safely, efficiently, and effectively?
Often referred to as motor planning, this skill develops through trial and error as a baby explores his environment and learns how to navigate it. A new walker bumps into the coffee table until he learns how to walk around it. A toddler learns to sequence the steps involved in safely jumping from a low step to the ground.
What do concepts of direction, distance, and location mean?
Imagine what a baby learns when he reaches for a toy: Where is the toy? How do I position my body to reach for it? How far do I have to reach to grasp it? As he gets older, he learns spatial concepts like behind, above, beside, and under from interacting with parents and caregivers during play.
You can support your little one’s spatial awareness by nurturing all of the above areas of development, and by playing games that teach him spatial concepts of direction, distance, and location. Our BabySparks program is a great resource for this, with hundreds of fun activities for overall development and several specific to teaching spatial concepts.