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Spatial reasoning – an understanding of objects and their shapes, locations, paths, and relations – is an often-overlooked component of STEM education despite its link to STEM learning and professional success (Newcombe, 2016; Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). Spatial skills are malleable (Uttal et al., 2013), and play with spatial toys, such as puzzles and blocks, may advance children’s spatial skills (Jirout & Newcombe, 2015; Verdine, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Newcombe, 2014). Although prior research has focused on physical toys, children’s play today is increasingly digital (Rideout, 2017), and some of the most popular digital games like Minecraft and Tetris are very spatial in nature. There is evidence that digital games may also improve spatial skills: Third-graders’ who played Tetris improved on mental rotation (De Lisi & Wolford, 2002).
Despite the prevalence of digital play, there is little research comparing children’s engagement in physical and digital spatial play, or examining the influence of social interaction during such play. Mothers occupy an important role in the development of children’s spatial reasoning through their language (Pruden, Levine, & Huttenlocher, 2011), gestures (Cartmill, Pruden, Levine, & Goldin-Meadow, 2010), and scaffolding (Borriello & Liben, 2017). Although some research suggests that parent-child interactions during reading are negatively affected by digital formats (e.g., Krcmar & Cingel, 2014), co-use of digital spatial games has not been studied. We examined mothers’ language, gestures, and scaffolding during parent-child play interactions with physical and digital spatial activities. Based on prior comparisons of electronic books and toys to traditional ones, we expected that mothers would use more spatial language, gesturing, and scaffolding during physical spatial play than during digital spatial play.
We recorded mother-child dyads in the laboratory during play with digital spatial games (Minecraft and Lumio Dragon Shapes apps on iPad) and matched physical spatial toys (Minecraft blocks and matched tangram puzzles) for 10 minutes per toy/game. The physical materials visually matched the digital apps, and all instructions were matched as closely as possible. Number of spatial words spoken by mother, child, and app was coded from video.
Preliminary results (N = 10) show that although children heard more total spatial words during digital play (M = 36.4, SD = 9.4) than during physical play (M = 28.8, SD = 10.76), the app produced the majority of spatial words during digital play (M = 19.6, SD = 3.91). On average, parents spoke 17.6 spatial words and children spoke 11.2 spatial words during physical play, while in digital play parents spoke 12.8 spatial words and children spoke 6.67 spatial words. Further analyses will include the full sample (N = 64) and will also examine differences between mode for parent/child gesture and parent scaffolding.
The value of children’s play goes well beyond entertainment; it can promote learning in a variety of domains, including spatial reasoning. Physical and digital forms of spatial play could provide an inexpensive and easy way to foster spatial reasoning from a young age, especially when parents are involved in their children’s spatial learning.