Spatial Relationships

Helping infants understand the physical relationship between objects is another foundational math skill. This happens throughout their environment. Understanding the spatial relationship of objects helps children grow their vocabulary and be able to describe what they see with more clarity. This is important for communication. Spacial relationships solidify as children become preschool age, but exposing them regularly as infants and toddlers supports this future understanding. 

Spatial awareness includes understanding:

  • Shape and size
  • Space and position – recognizing where a person or object is in relation to other people and objects / understanding concepts like “on top of” or “under.”
  • Direction and movement – following and predicting the path of a moving object

“Can you help me put this ball in the basket?” / “If you put away the biggest truck, I’ll pick-up the smallest one.” / “You’re sitting next to me and Jill is next to you.” / “I see you under the table.”

Zero to Three has a short video on this: Everyday Fun with Spatial Awareness 

Shapes is another area providers are most likely familiar and comfortable with. But are we making the most of all the shapes found in an infant’s/toddler’s environment?

Think simple: “Look, your cereal is a circle.” “You are playing with the blue circle plate today.”

Use the correct terms for both 3D and 2D shapes. Cans are cylinders. The ends are circles. Oranges are spheres.  If we flatten the cereal box it goes from a 3D cube to a 2D shape – rectangle or square.

Provide children with an open box that contains different 3D items. Physically handle items when label, or label when child is handling. Compare sizes of the same shape. Add in color, texture, etc. Expand the language. Expand the learning opportunity. Math is not a concept learned in isolation, but integrated.

Help children identify, create, name, and take apart shapes during regular routines, activities, and discussions happening during their days.

Nesting cubes are good for this.

Scavenger hunts – How many different shapes can you find? – can start real early. Children do not need language, just an understanding of what shape you are looking for. What language around shapes have you been loading them up with?

Toilet paper and paper towel tubes are a great resource when you are thinking shapes. They are cylinders and circles all in one. They fit little hands perfectly.

A preschool lesson on circles needed a little scaffolding to include a toddler in a painting experience. Preschoolers were printing with items from a “Circle” scavenger hunt. I was able to provide the toddler with a toilet paper tube she could put the end in the paint and them stamp circles on her paper.

Provide playdough for multiple ways to explore shapes while again building motor skills and usually social skills because when 1 child is playing in playdough there will soon be others joining in.

The child can turn a long rolled snake into a square or a triangle. Count the sides together.

The child can make a dough ball — or in math terms, a sphere.

Cookie cutters come in all shapes and sizes. You can also use a variety of common items to “press” into the playdough.

Don’t be afraid to use mathematical terms/labels that seem too high a language level. The earlier children hear these terms the better. They become common. They build that strong math foundation. 

How many of you have had a young child all excited when they see the moon during the day? Use that excitement and bring in some math. Children know the moon is a circle and this is part of that. It’s half (fraction) we call a semicircle. At some point they’ll be telling you about the “semicircle’ moon. You can also bring this natural lesson into books you share if the moon is pictured – full, semicircle, or crescent.

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