Early Childhood

Children’s Spatial Skills Seen as Key to Math Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 14, 2013 4 min read

Preschools and kindergartens long have taught children “task skills,” such as cutting paper and coloring inside the lines. But new research suggests the spatial and fine-motor skills learned in kindergarten and preschool not only prepare students to write their mathematics homework neatly, but also prime them to learn math and abstract reasoning.

“We think of early-childhood classrooms as being really high in executive-function demands, but what children are being asked to exercise [executive function] on end up being visual-motor and fine-motor tasks,” said Claire E. Cameron, a research scientist at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, in Charlottesville. She spoke at a forum held here last week by the Needham, Mass.-based Learning and the Brain Society.

Put yourself in the mind of a 4- or 5-year-old, and copying a shape on the blackboard onto a piece of paper is a much more cognitively complex task than it is for an adult: Understanding the design, then holding that shape in your mind and deciding how to start copying, requires working memory, one of the brain’s executive functions. Gripping the pencil properly, applying the right pressure to avoid tearing the paper, and keeping the paper oriented on the desk all need fine-motor skills that also, at such ages, require focus and self-control.

“Children learning to write have not automated these skills,” Ms. Cameron said. “Even sitting up straight so you can face the paper can be difficult.”

Children deemed “typically developing” can still show a wide range of visual-motor skills. In one test, children are asked to draw increasingly complex shapes.

Copying Patterns

As part of the Minds in Motion project at the University of Virginia, researchers test how well preschool and early-elementary children copy simple designs. The student drawings here were done by children without disabilities who were of the same age but different levels of development in executive-function and fine-motor skills.

Original Works

31learning C1 original

Students’ Interpretations

31learning C1 interpretations

SOURCE: Claire E. Cameron

“Some kids are actually seeing parts that aren’t there,” Ms. Cameron said, noting one attempt at a cross that looks more like an abstract animal.

“This is a normal developmental state,” she said. “When we copy something, we have a mental image and we are manipulating it and coordinating what you see with your movements.”

Other researchers at the University of Virginia center have found executive function, fine-motor skills, and general knowledge in kindergarten are better predictors of 8th grade reading and math achievement than early-literacy skills.

Moreover, the black-white achievement gap in elementary school also may have some of its roots in those foundational skills: Black children studied by the center entered kindergarten on average 9½ months developmentally younger than their white classmates in executive function and 8 months developmentally younger in visuo-spatial skills, though it’s not yet known why.

Researchers led by David W. Grissmer, a research professor at the university, found 1st graders who had attended high-poverty preschools often had never built with construction paper, blocks, or modeling clay.

Precursor for Math

And, in a separate, ongoing study of nearly 500 preschoolers, Ms. Cameron found about a third tested high in both executive-function skills—such as following directions amid distractions—and visual-motor skills, such as cutting paper. Children who performed well in either or both executive-function and visual-motor skills achieved well in both math and reading achievement and class behavior later on in the early-elementary grades.

“It’s the children who are low in both who are struggling,” Ms. Cameron said. The more quickly children become automatic in mentally coordinating an action or repeating a design, the more they can free up working memory and organize their thinking for more abstract problems.

As part of a $1 million pilot project supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Mr. Grissmer and his team worked with after-school programs at three high-poverty, high-minority elementary schools in Charleston, S.C.

For 45 minutes a day, four days a week, for seven months in fall 2010 and spring 2011, groups of five to seven kindergartners and 1st graders played games that required them to copy designs and shapes. At the start of each class, the pupils took part in “calirobics"—handwriting and line-tracing exercises set to music. During the rest of the class they copied a pattern or picture in a variety of materials. Some days, students cut and pasted construction paper to make chains or built models out of clay or Lego blocks; other days, they used stencils, pattern blocks, or fusible plastic beads.

The children were not taught any math, and the teachers did not draw any links between the art projects and math skills, but by spring, the 1st graders showed significant improvement in both math and executive-function skills.

At the start of the program, the students had tested at the 30th percentile nationwide in numeracy and “applied problems” on a standardized test of early math knowledge; by the end of the program, they had moved to the 47th percentile in those areas. The participating students showed similarly large improvements in looking, listening, attention, and executive-function skills.

The development of fine-motor coordination and executive function may be more critical than subject content for early-childhood classrooms, Mr. Grissmer said.

“We start kids too early on math and reading when they don’t have these foundational skills,” he said. In the earliest grades, he said, “you can’t just teach reading and math to get higher reading and math skills.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Studies Link Early Spatial Skills to Math Achievement

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

Early Childhood How Two Child-Care Centers Put Competition Aside and Created a Partnership During COVID-19
Due to COVID-19, two early-childhood centers put their competition aside to work together to support families during the pandemic.
Charles Dinofrio
7 min read
Early Childhood New Players Fill Child-Care Gap as Schools Go Remote
As school districts move to remote instruction for the fall, day-care providers, dance studios, and after-school programs step in to fill school-day child-care gaps.
7 min read
A student works on schoolwork earlier this month at the Wharton Dobson Club in Wharton, Texas, part of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston. For a small fee, the organization is offering a full-day program that provides students a safe place to complete their remote learning classwork and socialize with friends.
A student works on schoolwork earlier this month at the Wharton Dobson Club in Wharton, Texas, part of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston. For a small fee, the organization is offering a full-day program that provides students a safe place to complete their remote learning classwork and socialize with friends.
Courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston
Early Childhood Will Kindergartens Be Empty This Fall?
As cases of COVID-19 continue to grow, parents around the country are struggling with whether to send their child to kindergarten this fall. Some say they won't.
6 min read
Satiria Clayton was looking forward to her 5-year-old son Cassius starting kindergarten this year in Tempe, Ariz., but the recent spike in coronavirus cases has left her, like many other parents, worried about what to expect. "In an ideal would I would love to stay at home and teach him,” she said. “The reality is I have to send him to school."
Satiria Clayton was looking forward to her 5-year-old son Cassius starting kindergarten this year in Tempe, Ariz., but the recent spike in coronavirus cases has left her, like many other parents, worried about what to expect. "In an ideal would I would love to stay at home and teach him,” she said. “The reality is I have to send him to school."
Courtesy of Satiria Clayton
Early Childhood Letter to the Editor A Eulogy for Ken Goodman
To the Editor:
Several weeks ago, I spoke with an Education Week reporter about Ken Goodman in anticipation of an obituary about Ken’s passing and legacy (“Kenneth S. Goodman, ‘Founding Father’ of Whole Language, Dead at 92,” May 21, 2020). Great conversation. I looked forward to the tribute. I knew it would be complicated and controversial; Ken was complicated and controversial. But I was sure the controversy would be treated as part of the tribute.
1 min read