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Children's Spatial Skills Seen as Key to Math Learning

Author(s): 
Sarah D. Sparks
Published on: 
Wed, 05/22/2013

Education Week reports on two studies:

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...

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...

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."

"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.

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