Spatial skills higher among those who played with construction-based toys and video games in childhood: study

February 5, 2018, University of Colorado at Boulder
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Childhood play experiences strongly shape a person's spatial skills, according to a new CIRES-led study—those skills can be critical to success in fields like science and engineering. Young adults who played with construction-based toys such as Legos, or with certain types of video games outperformed other peers in tests of spatial reasoning—like the skill needed to mentally rotate objects. And most notably, the new research found that gender differences in spatial skills disappear when the researchers considered the impact of childhood play.

"The human brain is malleable and trainable," said Anne Gold, lead author and director of CIRES Education & Outreach. "By providing spatial training to K-12 children, and providing spatially demanding toys before schooling starts, we can give them the opportunity to develop skills important in fields like science, technology, engineering and math."

The team, who published their work today in Geosphere, surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students and found a huge spread in their spatial skills—students scored between 6 and 75 percent correct responses on a written, spatial-knowledge test. This poses a problem: It's difficult to teach a college-level class with so much variability in skill level. Gold and her colleagues sought to explain this contrast because most geologists need strong spatial skills to be successful.

"All of these students completed a K-12 education. If spatial skills were taught in grade school, we wouldn't see this significant spread of skills across the university classroom," said Gold. "Something must be happening earlier in or outside of school that makes some kids better spatial thinkers."

She and colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder and Carleton College in Minnesota gave written tests to 345 university undergraduates enrolled in geology courses at CU Boulder. Students tackled multiple-choice questions that required them to mentally rotate obscure shapes, for example, or visualize an object's cross section.

The researchers dissected the influence of several factors on spatial skills scores, including: college major, childhood play patterns, standardized test scores, number of science courses taken, and gender. They found that childhood play patterns made a huge difference:

Spatial skill scores were significantly higher among students who engaged with construction-based toys, and certain video games.

Other studies have shown the influence of childhood play on spatial skills, but Gold's team is the first to show howthe gender difference well described in the literature is mediated through childhood play.

Overall, male students performed better than female students on the test, but the young women and men who played with construction-based toys and video games performed equally well. In other words, when researchers controlled for the impact of childhood play patterns, disappeared.

The new research highlights the need for more access to spatial training and experiences for girls and women—or for anyone who desires success in a STEM career. In addition to providing spatially engaging toys to young children, Gold also suggests offering spatial trainings in grade school or even adulthood. She has preliminary evidence that people can improve their skills with spatial training, whether they lacked in the first place or have just gotten rusty over the years.

"What you choose to do over your life can affect your ," said Gold. "It doesn't need to be video games or Legos specifically—but you should engage in something that's spatially demanding. It can really make a difference."

Explore further: Parents' early word choices can widen STEM gender gap

Related Stories

Parents' early word choices can widen STEM gender gap

October 27, 2017

The gender gap in STEM can start when children are just learning to speak – the words parents choose to describe their child's world could be the reason boys are outpacing girls, according to a new study.

Playing video games reduces sex differences in spatial skills

September 28, 2007

University of Toronto researchers have discovered that differences between men and women on some tasks that require spatial skills are largely eliminated after both groups play a video game for only a few hours. The research, ...

Recommended for you

University choice and achievement partly down to DNA

October 18, 2018

Research from King's College London has shown for the first time that genetics plays a significant role in whether young adults choose to go to university, which university they choose to attend and how well they do.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
not rated yet Feb 05, 2018
Um, could it simply be that an aptitude for spatial skills means that 'construction' toys & kits are more attractive than eg 'GI Joe' or 'Barbie' ??
fuckyouyoufuckingfuck
3 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2018
So if we just let girls play with Legos they would score as high as boys? All these years of angst over equality and such a simple solution.
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2018
Well, if females or female children ever display any interest in mechanics, it should be encouraged. The few that there are.
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2018
And the preceding comments prove the contention that too many people pre-judge their expectations based upon perceived social standards.

Parents react to their children's choices at play. Censoring what makes the parent uncomfortable. Choosing what toys are available and modes of play they permit their children.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.