How to teach your preschooler shapes and spatial skills

February 12, 2016


An understanding of shapes, sizes, and relative places will help your little one in more ways than you might think.



Does your child build tall towers that crash all over your living room floor? Perhaps you find puzzle pieces everywhere? Or maybe your child’s favorite board game tokens always end up on the stairs and never back in the box?


Before you snap, keep in mind that this type of play is more than fun and games: it’s called spatial play, and it’s key in building your child’s sense of size, space, shape, position, direction, and movement. These skills may only seem important in the abstract, but they’re actually crucial in kindergarten as they affect your child’s early math skills and your child’s ability to follow directions.


Spatial skills are what help us cross the street, drive a car, or put together furniture, but beyond that they are important in math. It starts with Chutes and Ladders and winds up as a STEM career. Spatial abilities are among the skills measured for kindergarten readiness. Kindergartners are expected to recognize and name four shapes — circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles — and this marks the start of your child’s geometry lessons.


Kindergartners are also expected to follow directions that involve spatial math words such as in front of, behind, and on top of. A child who knows where their body is in space — like at the end of the line or next to your buddy — is better at following common directions in kindergarten and getting along as children learn to play together and share.


Early math expert Douglas Clement calls this “the language of space.” Clement, a professor at The State University of New York at Buffalo and co-author of Learning and Teaching Early Math, advises parents to use shape and space words, such as behind, under, deep, last, backward, triangle, and corner, in your daily interactions with your young kids. According to Clement, by saying things like, “Look, I cut your cheese sandwich into triangles,” and “I hid your shoes behind the sofa; can you find them?” you’re “mathematizing” your child through daily routines. Clement says that all young children have the same implicit (understood but not stated) understanding of math — but to make that understanding explicit (clearly stated),