Spatial Intelligence: What Is It And How Can You Help A Child Develop It?

Here’s How To Spot And Foster Spatial Intelligence In Your Child

August 17, 2020 Updated December 12, 2020

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As kids, we learn about the idea of being “smart.” This usually refers to doing well in school, getting good grades, and being able to recite facts and figures. (Just look at the “kid geniuses” brought onto talk shows because they’re able to list all the U.S. presidents in chronological order.) But as adults, we know that there are many different types of intelligence, and they don’t all correspond with academic performance.

One example is spatial intelligence, and it has to do with a person’s ability to visualize different objects and images. While it can definitely be helpful in the classroom — especially when it comes to math — it’s also useful later in life. For example, in careers that involve creating a mental picture of something that doesn’t yet exist or hasn’t happened yet, like surgeons, architects, and engineers. As a parent, you want to give your child all the advantages possible, both in and out of the classroom, and understanding spatial intelligence can help. Here’s what you need to know about spatial intelligence, including what spatial intelligence tests measure, and what multiple intelligences tests can tell us about how our kids’ brains work

What is spatial intelligence?

Though we may not think of it as a type of “intelligence,” our ability to mentally picture different items and concepts really does come in handy. The American Psychological Association defines spatial intelligence as “the ability to mentally manipulate objects in space and to imagine them in different locations and positions.” Spatial intelligence is one of the distinct intelligences in Dr. Howard Gardner’s multiple-intelligences theory, which looks at intelligence as something made up of eight different categories (the other seven are linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, naturalist, intrapersonal, and interpersonal).

What are spatial intelligence tests?

You probably did at least one spatial intelligence test in school, but it was likely presented to you as some sort of game or fun activity. Two classic examples of spatial intelligence tests are one that involves picturing folding paper with holes punched in different areas, and another that requires you to mentally rotate an object. But there are plenty of other options out there, so if you’re wondering about the spatial intelligence abilities of you or your child, you can find other types of assessments online. Of course, like other online tests, these are only meant as a guide and can be a tool to measure your spatial intelligence levels. And if you’re concerned about your child, it’s probably best to bring this up with their teacher, who’ll know what to do next. Another option is to take a multiple intelligences test, which can help hone in on the areas where you excel, and where you may need some work.

Can you improve spatial intelligence?

In short, yes! In fact, Gardner noted that few people are born with spatial intelligence, so it’s something most of us have to work at improving. Melissa Kelly, M.Ed., a secondary school teacher, instructional designer, and the author of “The Everything New Teacher Book: A Survival Guide for the First Year and Beyond” shared a few strategies for teachers who are looking to improve their students’ spatial intelligence (but really, you don’t have to be a teacher or student to reap the benefits). These include:

  • Practicing visualization techniques
  • Including artwork, photography, or drawing in classes
  • Giving homework assignments in the form of puzzles
  • Having students provide step-by-step instructions or directions
  • Using maps and visual aids
  • Creating models of objects/buildings

An easy way to hone your spatial intelligence is to look at everyday life through the lens of spatial awareness. What does that mean? As you go about your day, ask questions that make you think about spatial relationships. Fixing breakfast? Ask whether your toast would still fit in the toaster if you sliced it some other way. At the supermarket, ask your child if they think all of your groceries will fit in one bag. If not, how many do they think it will take? You may be surprised just how often your day-to-day routine presents opportunities for these pop quizzes that help reinforce the way you create visual images.

Also if you want to develop spatial intelligence in yourself or your child, here are a few ways to get that spatial spark started

Use Spatial Vocabulary: If you are trying to develop spatial intelligence within your child, be more specific when describing where objects are. Instead of saying “here” or “there” be very descriptive and specific when saying where an item is. This allows your child to imagine and visualize the space. 

Chess: Take a page from The Queen’s Gambit and buy a chessboard. For centuries chess has been used to build mental fortitude and improve complex thought. This mind-building game can help build your spatial awareness because in chess, you must think ahead and anticipate your opponent’s move in order to make smart decisions. Players are constantly reimagining the pieces and structure of the board and playing out different combinations in your head is a great way to strengthen your spatial intelligence. 

What are some examples of what spatial intelligence looks like?

There are a few common characteristics among people with higher levels of spatial intelligence. Children with spatial intelligence tend to have a visual-spatial learning style. Psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman, Ph.D. first coined the term “visual-spatial learner,” and identified the following traits of children who fall into this category, including:

  • Thinking in pictures rather than in words
  • Learning more easily when presented with visual rather than auditory information
  • Are “whole-picture thinkers” who grasp a concept all at once and see the whole before acknowledging the details
  • Struggling with learning done in a step-by-step process, drills, and repetition
  • Struggling with showing the sequence of a process. (i.e. They may get a math problem correct, but be unable to “show their work.”)
  • Seeming disorganized
  • Having vivid imaginations and are often good at coming up with unusual or unexpected ways to solve problems

Adults with spatial intelligence tend to gravitate towards careers with a strong visual component, whether it’s science-based or more of a creative profession. This includes careers in engineering, physics, astronomy, surgery, architecture, art, video production, television, drafting, photography, airline piloting, air traffic control, construction, counseling, fashion design, fashion merchandising, visual advertising, and interior design.