Introducing ThinkSpace

[ 0 ] November 9, 2012 |

By Robin Meisner, Director of Exhibits, Providence Children’s Museum

ThinkSpace, a major new exhibit exploring spatial thinking, opens at Providence Children’s Museum on November 10, 2012!  This dynamic environment invites visitors to experiment with shape and space through engaging hands-on puzzles, challenges, building activities and more.  Why spatial thinking?  Here’s the big idea behind the exhibit’s topic.

Spatial thinking is integral to everyday life and is necessary to navigate, explore and survive in the world.  People think spatially all the time — when tying shoes, reading maps, finding the way to school or work, building snowmen, doing jigsaw puzzles, designing costumes, climbing trees or slicing pizza.  Spatial thinkers are engineers planning bridges, pilots flying airplanes, doctors reading x-rays, electricians wiring houses, meteorologists predicting weather, bakers decorating cakes, geologists studying fossils and trapeze artists flying through the air.  Kids are spatial thinkers, too!

Put simply, spatial thinking is about developing an intuitive understanding — a sense — of shape and space.  It’s about the location and shape of objects, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.  It’s about the ways we can change, manipulate, represent, reason and communicate about shapes and spaces.

Spatial thinking is an important problem-solving tool and — as research shows — a key to kids’ interest and success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.  The connection to the arts and design is pretty clear, too.  Research also suggests that, while everyone (at any age) can become a better spatial thinker with practice, spatial thinking skills may be most malleable early in life — and, for young children, hands-on experiences are especially significant.*  However, while kids learn the basics of shape and space, spatial thinking isn’t systematically taught in schools.

In order to build a strong spatial sense and become proficient at spatial thinking, kids need to opportunities to…

  • Actively explore shapes and spaces in unusual and playful ways.
  • Practice imaginative abilities (e.g., rotating objects in their minds).
  • Experiment with the interaction between space and body — by, for example, inhabiting spaces and or changing perspectives.
  • Investigate shapes and spaces through fine and gross motor activities, and through sound and touch in addition to visual methods.
  • Hear and use spatial language and gestures.
  • Experience and play with tools of representation for spatial thinking, like diagrams and maps.

Spatial thinking develops over a lifetime and Providence Children’s Museum’s new ThinkSpace exhibit has playful activities to challenge older kids and even adults:

  • Navigate mystery maze boxes using the senses to guide a ball through hidden twists and turns, and map the path it travelled.
  • Create intricate kaleidoscopic designs by layering, rotating and ordering colorful cutout shapes in countless combinations.
  • Experiment with shadows, shapes and scale, transforming 3-D objects into 2-D silhouettes and creating imaginative shadow scenes.
  • Solve the Soma cube, a giant 3-D puzzle, by fitting together seven pieces to form a cube.  Find one or more of 240 different solutions.
  • Play a game of Shape Talk, using spatial language to guide a partner to recreate your hidden design.
  • Construct domino chain reactions, negotiating spacing and alignment to topple series of spirals and zigzags.

And because spatial thinking starts in infancy, ThinkSpace also offers several components — a bead maze, shape sorter and more — for the Museum’s youngest visitors.

Spatial thinking is powerful and fun — and the more opportunities kids have for this kind of play, the better their spatial sense will become.

Learn about the process of creating ThinkSpace on the Museum’s blog.

*Much of our understanding about the development of spatial thinking in young children has been influenced by the research of Dr. Nora Newcombe and her colleagues at the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center.

Category: community news

Children's Museum

about the author ()

The mission of Providence Children's Museum is to inspire and celebrate learning through active play and exploration. The Museum creates and presents interactive play and learning environments and hands-on programs for children ages 1 - 11 and their families. Located in Providence's Jewelry District. Museum educators and other staff contribute monthly articles about topics related to children's play and learning. Articles advocate for the importance of play to children's healthy development and are full of great ideas and resources, activities to try at home, and much more. For additional ideas and resources, visit the Museum's website and blog. Also join the conversation about the need for play on the Museum-hosted PlayWatch listserv (

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