The next time you mention to your toddler that his pizza is shaped like a circle, or notice that your preschooler is building a tall tower with plenty of pointy corners, you might be improving his math skills later in life.

In a recent study published in the journal Developmental Science, researchers at the University of Chicago and Florida International University suggest that children between 1 -5 years who hear their parents use spatial terms in conversations (for example, describing the size and shape of objects) perform better on tests of spatial skills. They may even develop a love of math and science one day.

Spatial thinking is believed to be an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) achievement and careers.

Of course, building "better" babies or putting toddlers on a fast track to high powered math and science careers is certainly not the point of this study. After all, young children's most important job - and the best way for them to learn and grow - is to play, explore, connect, and discover.

What this study does offer, though, is important insight into how to nurture various types of knowledge from an early age. Even if your little one doesn't ultimately pursue a career as a rocket scientist, why not build these useful skills in a playful and meaningful way?

Here's how:

Make it fun. Be sure to introduce new words and concepts with an emphasis on the joy of discovery, not a pressure to perform. The best way to nurture your young child's natural curiosity is to maintain a positive, low-key, playful approach to learning.

Make it relevant. Look for regular opportunities to point out spatially-related words.  You might pass a building and say, "Look at that red roof. It's shaped like a pointy triangle!" While walking the dog together, you might comment, "Wow, do you see the beautiful moon? It looks like a big, white circle." Even the breakfast table offers opportunities for fun observations about shapes and sizes. Keep your eyes open for all kinds of ways to incorporate spatial terms into daily life.   

Make it interesting. Consider a wide variety of terms to keep things interesting.

Here are some suggestions to get the (round!) ball rolling:

"Even though the corner of this coloring book is bent, you can still use it."

"The edge of this table feels so smooth."

"I wonder how wide this blanket is. Let's see if it fits on your new bed."

"Wow, that's a tall building. Look at all those windows!"

"It's time to set the table with our colorful, square napkins."

"Let's bake different-sized cookies - some small, some medium, and some large." 

Hopefully, your child will enjoy discovering the wide range of diverse shapes and sizes in the world - and maybe even develop a genuine interest in math and science as he grows.

About the Author

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and speaker specializing in parenting and child development.

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