Above, below; in, out; in front of, behind—as adults, we become so familiar with these concepts it’s easy forget we once had to learn them! Preschool age is usually when spatial concepts begin to solidify, which means it’s a perfect time to begin teaching them properly. Understanding the spatial relationship of objects helps children grow their vocabulary and be able to describe what they see with more clarity: is a person standing in front of or behind a table? Is an object on the left or the right of a child? These are important ideas for communication.
That being said, such abstract terms can be difficult to fully explain verbally, so some educators may have trouble teaching spatial concepts to preschoolers. That’s why spatial concepts for preschoolers are best taught through example and activities. Pam Schiller and Lynne Peterson’s book Count on Math contains an entire unit on spatial reasoning activities for young children. Below are a few examples to get children exploring the space around them.
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Circle Times Story: A Place for Pumpkin
- A small pumpkin
- A wagon and designated “pumpkin patch”
1. Tell the following story while demonstrating the movement of Andre and his pumpkin:
“Andre had been waiting all summer for his pumpkin to be large enough to pick. He had planted the seeds in the spring and had been watching the pumpkin grow from seeds to vines to blossoms and, finally, to small green pumpkins. He watched the pumpkins turn yellow, then orange. He watched them get bigger and bigger and bigger. Finally, his daddy said, “They’re ready to pick.” Andre knew just which pumpkin he wanted and he knew just where he wanted to put it.
Andre walked to the middle of the pumpkin patch and picked up his pumpkin. He put the pumpkin in his wagon and pulled it through the pumpkin patch, over the hill and down the dirt road to his house.
He took his pumpkin out of the wagon and went inside to show his mother. She was very surprised to see how big and round the pumpkin had grown. Andre put the pumpkin on the kitchen table.
“This is the perfect spot for my pumpkin,” said Andre.
“No it isn’t,” said Andre’s mother. “It’s in my way.”
Andre picked up the pumpkin and placed it under the table.
“Oh, no,” said Andre’s dad. “That’s where I put my feet.”
Andre picked up his pumpkin and put it beside the back door.
“Oh, no,” said Andre’s sister. “That’s where I put my book.”
Andre picked up his pumpkin and put it behind his chair.
“Oh, no,” said Andre’s grandmother. “That will be in your way.”
Andre was discouraged. He wanted his pumpkin to be in a place where he could see it every day.
“I have an idea,” said Andre’s father. “Let’s put the pumpkin on the front porch, beside the swing, on top of the porch rail. Then everyone can see it!”
So they did!
2. Repeat the story, this time with a child acting out the events in the classroom.
- Sleeping mats
- Masking tape
1. Set up an obstacle course. Make sure there are plenty of obstacles with a variety of different ways to get through them
2. Have the children take turns running the obstacle course
3. Have them describe their movements either during or after the activity. Encourage them to use the appropriate terms like over, under, through, and around.
Home Sweet Home
- Dollhouse furniture
1. Set up an empty dollhouse with the furniture outside of it
2. Ask children to place the furniture in specific locations within the house. Use spatial concept vocabulary like, “Put the table in the kitchen on the bottom floor. Now put the chairs under the table”
- White corn syrup
- Measuring cups
- Dish soap (such as Joy or Dawn)
- Bubble wands and containers
- Mix two cups of dish soap, six cups of water, and ¾ cups corn syrup. Let the mixture stand in the refrigerator for four hours
- Invite the children to dip their wands in the mixture and blow bubbles
- Talk about the movement of the bubbles using spatial concept vocabulary: “The bubbles are going up…Now they’re coming down. That one is going out the window. Another one is above the sink…”