Course:KIN366/ConceptLibrary/Spatial Awareness

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Movement Experiences for Children
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KIN 366
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Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Spatial Awareness is the ability for an individual to be aware of oneself in space. It’s the ability to understand the relationship between objects, the environment, and the individual when there is a change in position.[1] Spatial awareness is a complex cognitive skill and is developed through physical movement and exploration during infancy and early childhood.[1] It usually comes naturally for most children but some children find it difficult to develop this skill.

Types of Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness can be described in terms of egocentric localization and allocentric localization.[2] These terms refer to the individual’s frame of reference in which they relate objects to.

Egocentric localization

Egocentric localization is the ability for an individual to locate objects in the environment using his or her self as the reference point.[2] For example, if an individual were to try and describe the location of second base using egocentric localization, they may say that second base is directly in front of them when they are standing at home base. Infants under the age of 12 months are restricted to egocentric localization as their frame of reference as they are unable to use allocentric frames of reference.[2] As a child develops between the ages or 12 months and 16 months, they begin to show signs of allocentric localization and continue to develop this frame of reference into childhood.[2]

Allocentric localization

Allocentric localization by contrast is the ability for an individual to locate and describe objects using something other than one’s self as the reference point.[2] For example, if an individual were to try and describe the location of second base using allocentric localization they may say that second base is behind the pitcher, or that it is between first and third base. Allocentric localization typically emerges after the development of egocentric localization and is demonstrated by older children and adults.[2]

Both egocentric and allocentric localization are important for the development of motor milestones such as reaching and throwing and are used in everyday life situations.[3] Knowledge of the spatial environment with respect to one’s body is very important for an individual to formulate a motor program plan and move the body accordingly in space.

Importance of Spatial Awareness

Children with a strong sense of spatial awareness often understand and interpret relationships between objects, themselves, and the environment well.[1] Spatial awareness plays a vital role in almost every aspect of movement from developing fine motor skills to being able to perform complex body movements such as tumbles and flips. Motor milestones are also affected by an individual’s level of spatial awareness as many milestones depend on the individual’s ability to reference themself within a given environment.[1] For example, when learning how to throw a ball, a child must be spatially aware of their limb in space and have the intuition of when in space to release the ball in order to throw it a certain distance. Children with spatial awareness difficulty often have trouble moving in confined spaces, bump into others often, stand too close or too far from the person or object they are interacting with, mix up their letters ect…[4] Having an understanding of size, distance, volume, order, and time with respect to themself will allow the child to accomplish various daily tasks such as:

  • Reaching a proper distance to grab objects[3]
  • Understanding positioning and directional words such as up, down, left, right[4]
  • Throwing and catching items
  • Kicking a ball
  • Being able to travel through space with obstacles in the way
  • Travelling from point A to point B without getting lost[4]
  • Visualize conceptual items[4]
  • Read and understand their positioning on maps[4]
  • Typing and use of technology


Even though spatial awareness is something that is naturally developed, it is important to develop a child’s sense of spatial awareness through the use of movement and exploration as the child grows.[5] Having a strong sense of spatial awareness will facilitate the proper development of motor milestones as well as provide the cognitive ability to visualize different environments and perform tasks that involve the use of shapes, areas, volume, and space.

Developing Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness in essence is the ability to sense the location of one’s body in space in relation to the environment and is part of our overall perception. It uses different senses such as vision and proprioception of the limbs to provide feedback to the brain in order for you to determine your position in respect of the environment.[1] Proprioception is often developed along side of special awareness, as the proprioception of the limbs will give rise to the understanding of special awareness.[1] For example, when a child reaches for an object they are using the proprioception of the limb to determine how far the muscle needs to stretch in order to reach the distance of the object, which would be the special awareness aspect. This piece of information can then be stored and used at a later time to give feedback on reaching for a similar object at a similar distance.

Spatial awareness begins at infancy during the early visual and motor stages when an infant is learning to reach and move their limbs.[3] Young infants will first visually discover their bodies when they first notice their hands and as they continue to develop they learn to reach and grab objects in space.[1] Learning to reach and hold an object is a spatial awareness milestone, as it requires the individual to judge the distance required to move to the object as well as time the movement of grasping.[3]

The key to developing spatial awareness is to allow the child to explore their surroundings through active movement.[6] It is through the repetitive interactions with objects in different types of environments that will give rise to the natural sense of spatial awareness.[5] Over time the individual will store information about their limbs through the use of different perceptive mediums and be able to reference that information when challenged with a new situation that requires them to move around in a new environment.[5]

Promoting Spatial Awareness

As a parent, there are many things that can be done to help promote and improve a child’s sense of spatial awareness. Promoting spatial awareness mostly involves a type of activity or game for the child to play and practice using visual, physical, and environmental cues to be able to locate and reference their body in relation to other objects. As the child gets older, more and more complex tasks can be done to help improve both egocentric and allocentric localization aspects of spatial awareness.

At Home Games

At home parents can help develop spatial awareness by discussing the location of objects in the house. Ex: the couch is to the left of the Television. The pot is on top of the stove.[7]

Objects can also be hidden around the house and directions can be given to the child in order to locate the object. The role can also be reversed and the child can provide directions to the parent. Ex: take 4 steps forward and turn right.[7]

Games such as Simon Says can be used to increase body awareness in a very quick and decisive situation.

Using gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii can help children become spatially aware using a fun a virtual environment.

Since spatial awareness is most effectively developed through active movement, providing an environment within the house for the child to explore and test their spatial boundary can also help develop and improve a child’s sense of spatial awareness.

Some other things a parent can do to help promote spatial awareness at different sages include the following:

Early Childhood

0-2 years: Rub lotion on babies’ legs and arms to help develop sensory integration and body awareness[8]

Play a finding game by putting a familiar object in an unusual location.

3-4 years: Introduce children to all kinds of spatial representational systems such as street maps, globes, diagrams, ect…

As picture books are read, point to where characters and objects are located. This can help promote fine motor skills.[8]

5-6 years: Practice personal space by using their arm’s length as their personal bubble

Create an obstacle course to promote understanding of their body position as they travel through space.[8]


There are many ways to facilitate a child’s spatial awareness and improve it, the easiest being through the child’s own exploration and movement.[5] This can be done in the home environment or outside by simply playing in a playground. The use of new technology such as the iPad and Wii gaming console provide parents with new ways to engage children and explore spatial environments using virtual environments. This can help them excel in today’s society as many of our products and work environments require spatial awareness and acuity with keyboards, monitors, phones, and other forms of technology. Combining these fine and gross motor skills with a good foundation of spatial awareness will give children the tools to excel in all aspects of life and society.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 [Eckersley, S. (2012). Spatial awareness. [online] Retrieved from: http://occupationaltherapyforchildren.over-blog.com/article-spatial-awareness-108726104.html [Accessed: 28 Feb 2014].]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 [Gabbard, C. (2012). Lifelong motor development. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 [Carvalho, R., Tudella, E., Caljouw, S. & Savelsbergh, G. (2008). Early control of reaching: effects of experience and body orientation. Infant Behavior And Development, 31 (1), pp. 23--33.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 [Innerpiecesgallery.com. (2014). Spatial awareness activities for kids /inner pieces gallery. [online] Retrieved from: http://innerpiecesgallery.com/2013/05/spatial-awareness-activities-for-kids/ [Accessed: 28 Feb 2014].
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 [Yan, J. H., Thomas, J. R. & Downing, J. H. (1998). Locomotion improves children's spatial search: a meta-analytic review. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 87 (1), pp. 67--82.Rubric
  6. [Milestoneselc.blogspot.ca. (2012). Milestones - early learning & autism centre: spatial awareness in young children. [online] Retrieved from: http://milestoneselc.blogspot.ca/2012/04/spatial-awareness-in-young-children.html [Accessed: 3 Mar 2014].
  7. 7.0 7.1 [Child Development Institute. (2011). Helping your child overcome spatial problems. [online] Retrieved from: http://childdevelopmentinfo.com/learning/learning_disabilities/spatial [Accessed: 3 Mar 2014].
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 [Development: Ages & Stages--Spatial Awareness. (2006). Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 20 (6), p. 25. [Accessed: 3 Mar 2014].