Simply put, what parents say and do matters. O.K., its perhaps not new news that parents can model language and behavior for their kids. But, what is surprising, is the extent of this parental impact. In research published last week in the journal Developmental Science, psychologist Susan Levine and her research team found that the amount of talking parents do to their infants about the spatial world (i.e. words describing the spatial features and properties of objects; e.g. big, tall, circle, curvy, edge) predicts children's problem solving success as they near kindergarten age.
It's easy to imagine how spatial skills such as being able to rotate objects in your head or read a complex graph are important for success in math and science. As it happens, these same spatial skills are imperative for success in everyday life too. Whether it's consuming graphical information in the newspaper or navigating city streets, our ability to think spatially matters. What Dr. Levine and her colleagues found was that children's spatial abilities are in, large part, driven by what their parents say.
The researchers began by tracking the spatial talk of parents and their children while they interacted naturalistically in their homes. They visited homes every 4 months beginning when children were 14 months of age. During each visit, parents and kids were videotaped while they engaged in their daily routines such as playing with toys, book reading, and meal or snack time. At the end of the study, when children were 4.5 years old, the researchers assessed kids' spatial abilities by asking them to do problem solving activities like mentally rotating objects in their mind's eye.
It turns out that parents vary widely in the amount of spatial language they use with their children. Some parents use spatial terms all the time (over 2,000 terms per week) while others use them hardly at all (around 20 terms per week) - a 100-fold difference. Interestingly the more spatial language parents used, the more spatial language their kids produced. And, children who spoke more spatially as infants tended to perform better on spatial problem solving tasks at a later age.
Why does spatial language have such powerful effects? One possibility is that exposure to spatial terms (e.g., big, tall, curvy, bent) enhances kids' ability to think about the spatial world. Hearing and using these terms likely increases awareness of how objects fit together, pushing kids to notice relations they might not have otherwise tuned in on.
Of course, more work is needed to find out exactly why parents' language has such big effects. But, in the meantime, talking about the spatial world seems like a relatively easy way to enhance young children's spatial thinking.
For more on developing young kids' thinking and reasoning skills, check out my book Choke!
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Pruden, S. M., Levine, S. C., & Huttenlocher, J. (2011). Children's spatial thinking: does talk about the spatial world matter? Developmental Science, 14, 1417-1430