Hands-on: Investigating the role of physical manipulatives in spatial training

In this project, we are testing whether our new spatial training intervention leads to improvements in spatial and mathematics skills in children.

Start date

February 2020

End date



Spatial ability involves perceiving the location and dimension of objects, and their relationships with other objects. Beyond its role in everyday living (e.g. packing a suitcase, finding your classroom), spatial thinking is also fundamental to mathematics performance. Despite its role in the development of mathematics skills in childhood, spatial thinking is often absent from primary school mathematics curricula. This is due, in large part, to a lack of clarity on how best to introduce spatial skills into the classroom, to optimise gains in both spatial and mathematical thinking.

Recent studies show that spatial thinking is one aspect of cognition that is consistently shown to improve with training. Recent studies show that spatial training interventions consistently lead to improvements in mathematics. Unfortunately, these interventions are yet to be widely adopted in the classroom. One reason for this is that previous studies vary substantially based on the type of spatial training delivered.

One feature by which previous studies differ, is whether they include physical manipulatives (embodied action) in the delivery of training, or not. Embodied action is the interaction of the learner with some aspect of the physical environment, e.g., physical manipulatives, concrete materials or models. In non-embodied learning there is no physical action by the learner, e.g., watching an instructional video, completing a worksheet. No known studies have investigated the role of embodied action (use of physical-manipulatives) in spatial training.

Hence, this project uses a randomised controlled trial to compare hands-on spatial training (using physical manipulatives) to hands-off training (using no physical manipulatives) and active control training. This is the next critical next step in establishing the optimum design of spatial training paradigms for use in the mathematics classroom.


Emily Farran profile image

Professor Emily Farran

Professor in Developmental Psychology

Katie Gilligan-Lee profile image

Dr Katie Gilligan-Lee

Lecturer in Developmental Psychology

Dr Zachary Hawes

Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

Professor Kelly Mix

Professor and Chair, University of Maryland

Ashley Williams

Undergraduate placement student, University of Surrey

Contact us

For information, please contact:

Katie Gilligan-Lee - k.gilligan@surrey.ac.uk


We have almost finished the data collection for this project and findings will be reported here soon.

Research groups and centres

Our research is supported by research groups and centres of excellence.

Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability Lab 

Research themes

Find out more about our research at Surrey: