The Role of Play and Adult Guidance in Children's Spatial Development

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Eisen, Sierra, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lillard, Angeline, AS-Psychology, University of Virginia
Jirout, Jamie, Education Leadership, Foundations and Policy, University of Virginia

When children play with toys like blocks and puzzles, they engage in spatial reasoning—mentally considering objects in space and their relations to each other and their environment. Spatial play is associated with improvement in spatial skills (Verdine, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Newcombe, 2014), which are a valuable contributor to success in STEM fields (Stieff & Uttal, 2015; Wai et al., 2009). However, it is unclear whether spatial play causes improvement in spatial skills. Past research on spatial play has focused on physical toys, yet many common childhood activities now exist as popular digital games. Furthermore, parents play an important role in their children’s spatial development but may behave differently when spatial play is physical versus digital. This dissertation investigated how mothers and children engage together in physical and digital spatial play, and whether such play can improve children’s spatial reasoning. In Study 1, 60 five- and six-year-olds (M = 71.3 months, SD = 7.4 months) and their mothers played with closely matched physical and digital spatial games and mother-child spatial language and mothers’ question-asking were coded. Mothers and children used more spatial language, and mothers asked more questions, during physical play than digital play. Mothers and children also showed similar patterns in the types of spatial language they used within each context. To assess whether spatial play advances spatial reasoning, Study 2 enrolled 50 kindergarten and first-grade students (M = 77.8 months, SD = 8.2 months) in a classroom-based spatial play intervention, during which children played with either physical spatial, digital spatial, or non-spatial toys twice a week for three weeks (6 hours total). There were no effects of physical or digital spatial play on children’s spatial skills. Together, these studies revealed that physical and digital spatial play prompt different behaviors in mother-child dyads, but a short-term playful intervention does not impact children’s spatial development.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Learning, Spatial development, Digital media, Play
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