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Gift Picks: Great Spatial Thinking Toys

By Providence Children’s Museum educators

Since planning for and opening our new ThinkSpace exhibit, Museum educators have been thinking a lot about great spatial thinking activities.  Spatial thinking is an important problem-solving skill, and one that is fundamental for kids’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.  Here are some of our favorite hands-on, open-ended toys that foster spatial thinking.

There is no better toy than blocks, the simpler the better.  Unit blocks — basic wooden blocks shaped like bricks and half-bricks, cones and arches — belong in every kid’s childhood.  Toddlers stack them, exploring triangles, squares and curves.  Kindergarteners build fanciful cities.  Eight-year-olds make raceways for toy cars and houses for dolls.  Blocks help kids learn the fundamentals of shape and proportion, discover some basic physics, and build spatial thinking skills.  Research has shown that block play heightens children’s use of spatial language and discovery of basic geometric principles.  Studies show that high school students with these early experiences do better in more advanced stages of math and geometry and toddlers who play with blocks have higher language acquisition.

But blocks are much more than good for you — they’re fun!  Open-ended and versatile, they spark imagination and inspire creativity.  Susan Linn of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood says, “The best toy is 10% toy and 90% child.”  Unit blocks fit that description to a T.


Other Building and Design ActivitiesWedgits-Junior-Set

There are a variety of building and design activities that offer wonderful opportunities for spatial thinking.  Colorful Wedgits  pieces can be stacked and nested in hundreds of ways; design cards challenge kids to turn 2-D representations into 3-D forms.  Kaleidograph  die-cut cards can be rotated, flipped and stacked, creating billions of patterns that mirror the geometry of nature.  Kids set up their own scenes with Deep into the Forest — part play theatre and part spatial thinking exploration.  With Tobbles, young children experiment by balancing wobbly pieces to build dynamic towering structures.  And don’t forget the spatial fun that cardboard boxes offer — design and build, stack and tear apart, make and remake cardboard creations.


Solving puzzles of all kinds helps build spatial thinking skills.  For a young child’s first puzzle, simple, knobbed pieces with pictures underneath guide children to match shapes and images.  Preschoolers love the large pieces in jumbo floor puzzles, such as Melissa & Doug’s USA Map Floor Puzzle, which also introduces early geography concepts.  For older children, puzzles with more than one solution — like tangrams, mosaics and pattern blocks — offer multiple spatial challenges.  These and other open-ended puzzles, such as Grimm’s colorful Spiral Puzzle, encourage children to think about patterns and the way shapes fit together.  And completing a classic picture puzzle together provides old-fashion fun for the entire family.  Try those made by Ravensburger, available with as few as 24 pieces or as many as 32,000!puzzle


Exercise spatial thinking skills and use logic and deduction to figure out the arrangement of hidden pegs in Mastermind and Battleship.  Chinese Checkers challenges you to visualize different routes for your marbles as you maneuver from one side of the board to the other.  A perennial favorite, Pictionary prompts you to transfer an image from your head to paper — in just 60 seconds!  And a deck of cards is a must have.  From finding matching pairs in memory to building a house of cards, this versatile plaything fosters spatial perception skills and is a great travel companion.

Lace & Trace ShapesCraft Kits

Melissa & Doug toys provide a rich place to start for craft kits and many other items that promote spatial thinking.  Bead-lacing kits like Lace & Trace Shapes  and Lacing Beads in a Box help young children learn shapes and practice hand-eye coordination.  For school-age kids, origami is a captivating choice and there are many excellent origami books filled with templates to follow, including Planet Origami, Underwater Origami and Horrorgami by Steve and Megumi Biddle.  Kits for making paper airplanes, hand puppets, masks and more are also great hands-on options; The Land of Nod has several wonderful products.

The Museum’s Gift Shop offers a selection of educator-approved activities that foster spatial thinking skills, including a variety of puzzles and building and design kits, and an assortment of smaller spatial thinking challenges — wooden and wire puzzles, tangrams and brain teasers.  And download the annual TRUCE Toy Buying Guide (by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment), which helps parents choose toys that promote healthy play and avoid those that undermine it — especially important in an age of technology, media and marketing to children.

Happy playing!

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