Visual spatial relations have a strong impact on a child’s academic skills. As mentioned in my previous post about Visual Perceptual Skills: Real Life Applications, this particular skill has to do with understanding the relationships of objects within the environment.
When this is an area of difficulty for a child, we often hear concerns from parents about letter reversals or poor alignment of letters on the page. While you can quickly search the internet for worksheets and activities that address spatial relations, I wanted to take this time to point out a few underlying factors that also have a lot to do with the development of this concept: Laterality and Directionality.
I know, I know, what would life be if professionals didn’t have these long-winded words to reference? Allow me to break down each of these concepts so they might make a little more sense as to how they play a role in visual spatial relations.
Definition: the awareness that there are two different sides of the body.
This awareness is developed as the child gains a thorough understanding of their body scheme. It begins around age four, but the ability to correctly name their right and left sides might not stick right away. It’s not uncommon to see a five year old guessing, “is this my right hand?” In fact, it’s really around age 8 or 9 when the majority of children are consistently identifying these sides of the body.
When a child develops handedness, they are able to more efficiently plan fine motor activities. That’s because one hand automatically feels like the correct hand to use and the other doesn’t. This also creates an important point of reference for development of spatial concepts.
I know many of us know children well into ages 10 and up that still have difficulty in this area. These children might have more difficulty with things like reading and writing, which is set up from left to right. (Think about this – we have no real reason why we read from left to right – that’s just the way it is, so when a child has difficulty with these spatial concepts, reading or writing in this directional pattern might not feel as automatic.)
Definition: understanding the concepts of right/left/up/down/in front/behind as projected into space.
While laterality is more of an internal understanding of these direction concepts, directionality is the ability to send these ideas outside of the body. Children start by understanding these concepts in relation to themselves, i.e. “the dog is on my right,” and then later are able to relate this to two objects, i.e. “the pencil is to the left of the paper.” One of the hardest levels of this concept is identifying the right/left sides of someone in front of them.
Think about how many directional references children receive in their day. They are told to write their name on the top right corner of the paper, turn right out of the classroom to go to the office, or pass their test to the person on their left.
Also, think about the important concept of number and letter recognition. To you, a chair is still a chair, even if it’s flipped upside down on a desk. In that same theory, to a child who has not gained directionality concepts, a “p” can still be a “p”, even if it’s flipped upside down as a “d” – and thus you might be able to understand their confusion.
So while many activities exist for development of visual spatial skills, it’s also incredibly important to assess foundational building blocks and their potential impact on functional outcomes.