Spatial awareness is simply the brain’s ability to judge and navigate space. You have probably heard the term before. At first glance, it seems very simple and obvious.

But a lack of spatial awareness can cause major issues in a person’s life. While everyone has varying degrees of spatial awareness, unique learners often have problems in this area.

Spatial awareness affects our ability to read, write neatly, perform math successfully, navigate a room, keep track of items, organize ourselves, and even follow directions while driving. In fact, it is a foundation of learning.

Spatial awareness allows us to:

  • Organize our physical space, like the compartments in our car and the drawer in our desk.
  • Remember where we placed important items like homework, keys, or the dog’s leash.
  • Move our bodies through space.
  • Form a mental map prior to executing our movement.
  • Spatial awareness is required to perform any type of movement in an efficient manner.

The spatial awareness created through correct sensory processing is fundamental to success in any life activity. This includes attending school or working at a job. However, most unique learners aren’t even aware that they have a problem with their spatial awareness.

One young adult patient I worked with many years ago described herself as someone who could easily find her way around a new city without getting lost.

Despite this perception, this young woman tended to have difficulty arriving at familiar destinations when roadblocks or city events resulted in rerouting traffic. She had difficulty changing plans to form a new map in her head. Even using the maps on her cell phone was confusing. As a result, she frequently missed appointments because she would suddenly choose to not attend the event due to the confusion.

This patient was not remorseful nor expressed any regret for these missed opportunities. She viewed them to be unavoidable and “no big deal.” Little did she know that the same lack of spatial awareness that caused her problems while driving was also causing the organization and planning issues that were getting her into trouble at work.

Reading, Writing and Spatial Awareness

The understanding of space, such as understanding the space that exists between two objects, is more important to reading and writing than you might think. Spatial processing is an essential sub skill of reading.

The concepts of in front, behind, left, right, over, and under are all words that describe one thing in relation to a separate other thing. The ball is in front of the chair. The book is located on the left side of the shelf. A child must understand the spatial relationships in the real world of three dimensional objects.

In the ‘real world’, as children call it, or the three-dimensional world, objects have three dimensions. All objects in the real world have length, height, and depth. People, places, and things in the world have three spatial dimensions. Unless spatial relationships are understood in the three dimensional world, it is very difficult for a student to shift this learning to the two dimensional world of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students must begin to decipher the importance of two dimensional space, such as complex visual symbols that we call letters.

Letters printed on a page are two dimensional. They have height and width, but no depth. They are spaced apart, width wise, from one another. An even greater space is placed between words. The space between words allows the human eye to bring closure to one pattern of symbols and to prepare for a new pattern of symbols that make up common words.

In addition, experienced readers are familiar with the size and shape of printed letters. Part of learning to read, especially “sight” words, is understanding how those various letters look when they are grouped together to form a word.

Without spatial awareness, these clues are meaningless.

Left, Right, Left

When a child or adult understands spatial concepts, such as left and right, then appreciating letter shapes and symbols become easier and more natural. The spatial understanding of left and right involves integrating the two sides of the body together. Integrating the two sides of the body collaborates with the experience of gravity, the sense of touch and sense of sight.

Some teach spatial concepts, such as left and right, by cues on the child’s hands, such as printing an L on the left hand. But these types of methods involve “tricks” to remember which is which. The child must work hard to remember the “trick”.

Generalizing the information is more helpful than relying on memorization of rules and circumstances. Generalizing information places that data in a portion of the brain that does not require a high level of energy to retrieve and utilize that data.

Letting a child experience space through movement, touch, and vision will improve how well both sides of the brain work together. This leads to the ability of the child to generalize the information.

(See these Strategies to Try to learn how to improve spatial awareness.)

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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