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The importance of spatial thinking for mathematics; translating research into practice

Start date

June 2021

End date

November 2021


Spatial ability involves perceiving the location and dimensions of objects and the relationships between them. It is core to everyday actions such as reading maps, or packing a suitcase, and it is also associated with expertise in mathematics. Research has shown that spatial training is effective in improving maths performance and is really beneficial to young children as it has been proven to increase expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in later life.

Despite the importance of spatial ability, it is given little emphasis within the mathematics curriculum in England. In fact, for the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum, the early learning goal of “Shape, Space and Measure” will be removed from 2021/22 and the latest DfE "Ready to Progress" criteria for mathematics Key Stage 1, does not refer to spatial thinking at all.

This lack of emphasis contrasts to initiatives in the USA, that appreciate that, “without explicit attention to [spatial thinking], we cannot meet our responsibility for equipping the next generation of students for life and work in the twenty-first century.” (National Research Council, 2006). 

Enhancing and supporting the use of spatial thinking activities in the classroom is an inexpensive way of supporting children’s mathematical development, and can reduce the annual cost of mathematical difficulties to the UK, which are up to £20billion a year. It can also serve to reduce recruitment difficulties for students entering STEM careers. If the importance of spatial thinking is not successfully communicated to practitioners and policy makers, as a nation we may be failing to implement a very promising avenue for addressing educational inequalities.

Emily Farran, in collaboration with Katie Gilligan-Lee, has teamed up with the Early Childhood Maths Group, a UK based group of early years mathematics practitioners and experts, to determine opportunities for adding spatial thinking to the curriculum and how best to translate spatial-maths research to teachers for maximum uptake. This will culminate in creating and piloting a spatial thinking toolkit for teachers, which will include videos, photographic and written examples of good practice.

They propose to tap into early years practitioner and primary school teacher experience to:

  1. Determine where there might be promising opportunities to ‘spatialise’ the curriculum.
  2. Further understand the detriment of the lack of emphasis on spatial thinking in the mathematics curriculum in England.
  3. Determine how best to translate research into the relationships between spatial thinking and maths competence to educational practice. 


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This project builds on Emily and Katie’s previous research. They have already demonstrated relationships between spatial ability and mathematics in primary school age children and that spatial training improves performance not only in spatial ability, but in mathematical achievement.

Their pilot toolkit will enable teachers to increase their use of spatial thinking in early years settings and primary classrooms. Teachers will integrate spatial thinking into core curriculum concepts by following easy to use examples, all of which children will enjoy and benefit from. They will also be equipped to use a range of resources, both formal structured apparatus and informal resources made by children and teachers, in an informed manner, to embed spatial teaching strategies into the curriculum.

The pilot toolkit evaluation and impact scoping exercise will place Emily and her team in an optimal position to apply for further funding to improve and roll out the toolkit more broadly, and for future policy impact.   

This project is also relevant to the ESRC priorities of mental health because the success of the project has the potential to reduce maths anxiety and improve attitudes to maths in practitioners/teachers, parents and children. 

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