It’s Not Over Their Heads: Spatial Language in Kids’ Activities

We use spatial language in everyday activities. Stating “the pail is next to the boy” provides a definition of visual space. Phrases like “on the table, under the bed, behind the door” are very important for young children who are learning about their visual space world and how to follow directions through practical life learning.  Once a child becomes school age, they need to use language in order to follow directions quickly and accurately and to master new social and educational learning.

Movement-based learning is the learning that a child does while moving their body through space. Crawling, reaching, walking, running, and climbing are all ways in which children learn through movement.

They learn to gauge where their body is in relation to the world around them, and to use language to label the space around them.

Once they learn this basic spatial language, they can then transfer it to other spatial language.  For example, understanding how to “stand in front of the door” helps a child understand how to “put the chair in front of the door.”

Brain & Behavior

Recent findings published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology propose a dynamic model that specifies how low-level visual processes can be integrated with higher level cognition to achieve these flexible spatial language behaviors. The purpose of this study was to give a detailed account of the cognitive processes used to create and understand relational spatial descriptions. Researchers found that cognitive flexibility is a system grounded in both neural dynamics and behavior.

This study also highlights the importance of bridging the gap between the brain and behavior. The ability to describe the position of an object relative to another one requires a reference frame. A reference frame is also needed to act on such directions as to how to locate and retrieve an object. Some children who are struggling with learning also exhibit similar difficulties with spatial language behavior. These children also lack the appropriate reference framework for locating objects.

StepUp Note

StepUp programs give children experience with many visual-spatial frames of reference (up, down, front, back, etc.) and with the mapping of visual space to verbal language (on the stool, jump down, walk around).  Daily practice is the most efficient and effective way for children to master basic skills.  StepUp gives daily practice with the important skills of knowing visual space and labeling it through language. At home, you can motivate children to think spatially by:

  • building together — anything from block towers to pillow forts — and leading with a question, like “what block do you want to put on top? Can you build a tower as high as your nose?”
  • asking your children questions like “where do your shoes belong?” rather than instructing where to put their shoes.
  • modeling the movements of a new task while the children evaluate their own movement (forward, back, up, down, left, right) by matching you.