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Positive Parenting: Spatial Skills Give Kids A STEM Head Start

The words you use during playtime with your baby and toddler do matter. Language that help kids understand the relationships between objects may help them develop the skills they need for STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.

For three-year old Ari Sorkin, the bigger, the better. Ari takes the lead when they play, but mom, Janet, guides the conversation.

Janet told Ivanhoe, “If he says he wants something to be big, I’ll ask him to specify. Do you want it to be tall or do you want it wide?”

Developmental psychologist Susan Levine, PhD, at the University of Chicago and her colleagues studied 58 pairs of parents and kids age one to five. Researchers measured spatial words, words that describe objects and the relationships between them. From age one, parents used more spatial words with boys.

“The first time we detected differences in spatial thinking of these kids is about four and a half years of age,” detailed Levine.

At that age, researchers found boys produced more spatial words than girls. They also had stronger spatial skills.

Levine said parents should make sure boys and girls have access to toys for spatial play, things like building blocks, Legos and puzzles. Use spatial language like “over” and “under.”  Point out shapes, and objects that are different sizes.

Levine emphasized, “These kinds of findings that we are uncovering early in life are important for changing parent behaviors and ultimately for diversifying the STEM pipeline.”

This shows a little conversation could go a long way.

Susan Levine and first author Shannon Pruden said they aren’t sure why parents in the study used more spatial words with boys, but say stereotypes about certain games and activities being more “boyish” might have played a part.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising and Field Producer; Milvionne Chery, News Producer; Roque Correa, Editor and Videographer.
Produced by Child Trends News Service in partnership with Ivanhoe Broadcast News and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.