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School’s out: Block out time for spatial learning

July 10, 2019
Corinne Bower, Lien Vu, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
The Brookings Institution

Summer is here—known for camp, beaches, and the summer slide, where many children lose skills they gained during the school year. For young children, there are easy ways to exercise the brain while still enjoying the fruits of the season. Playful learning—child-directed, fun activities that support language, literacy, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—is the real “educational” toy, and summer is the perfect occasion to introduce it into daily routines. Construction toys (like building blocks and puzzles), wooden trains, mazes, and treasure maps, for example, offer playful learning experiences that promote STEM-relevant spatial skills.

Spatial skills involve mentally visualizing and transforming objects and their relation to one another. Everyday tasks require spatial skills—such as packing the dishwasher and finding the quickest route for a morning commute. Indeed, children with higher spatial skills are more likely to obtain a profession in a STEM field as an adult. Engineers must visualize how forces affect the designs of structures; biologists must understand the molecular building blocks of life and illustrate them in spatial representations or diagrams; and chemists must understand the organization of the spatial layout of the periodic table or identify certain molecules from various perspectives. But these are just a fraction of the professions that require STEM-related spatial skills.