What does it take to tie your shoes or brush your hair? What’s going on in your mind that allows you to pack a suitcase or merge into traffic? These common activities require visual intelligence, or the ability to perceive the visual world accurately. This works in conjunction with your visual-spatial processing skills, or how you process visual stimuli with spatial relationships around you.
In this article, we’ll discuss visual-spatial intelligence—what it is, its importance, and how you can strengthen these skills in the classroom.
What is visual-spatial intelligence?
Visual-spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive, analyze, understand, store, and recall visual information. It allows you to visualize, create, and manipulate yourself and other items in space. Visual-spatial intelligence isn’t strictly dependent on one’s ability to see—a blind or visually impaired person can demonstrate great spatial intelligence. Spatial ability includes how you recognize an object (even when viewed from different angles), imagine internal movement, and think about spatial relationships.
These skills are how Michelangelo could visualize the statue of David from a block of stone. It’s how Dale Earnhardt managed to win seven NASCAR championships. While their careers were very different, these men likely shared many of the same qualities. The characteristics commonly associated with visual-spatial intelligence include:
- An enjoyment of visual arts: Visual-spatial intelligence is commonly associated with a keen interest in and enjoyment of visual arts. People with this intelligence type like drawing, painting, and sculpting, and they’re also often interested in computer graphics and cinema.
- Visualization of objects: Visualization is the formation of a mental image, typically the representation of a person, object, or situation, based on the visual information your mind receives. You use it when you read a book, give someone directions, or describe a memory. Visualization allows you to be imaginative and is a successful tool for artists, writers, athletes, and more.
- Sense of navigation, proportion, and distance: People with high visual-spatial intelligence are very good with directions. In addition to understanding directions, they can easily recall them. Not only can they navigate and maneuver vehicles well, but visual-spatial skills also help them understand proportion and distance—the size of a person or object to its location in space.
- Recognition of patterns: Visual-spatial intelligence allows you to visualize the world, modify your surroundings based on your perception, and recall visual details. People with this type of intelligence are often skilled at recognizing patterns and creating visual images of locations or objects.
- Skill in solving puzzles: Visual perception skills are what make a person adept at solving puzzles. When you can detect small similarities and differences in colors and shapes, it makes solving puzzles easier. Visualization helps your ability to mentally manipulate 3D objects and decide where puzzle pieces go.
- An interest and appreciation of architecture: People with visual-spatial intelligence often enjoy architecture, which many consider an art form. Their admiration of building designs, structures, and parks draws their eyes and minds to shapes, lines, and colors.
Potential career choices for people with high visual-spatial intelligence include artists, architects, engineers, photographers, and pilots. It might be easier to get a sense of one’s navigation skills or their true appreciation for art when they’re older. However, visual-spatial intelligence and its associated characteristics start developing during early childhood. Babies are born with visual-spatial intelligence, and it—as well as seven other intelligences—continues developing with time and practice.
Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences
Intelligence quotient (IQ) tests might lead you to believe that there is one type of intelligence. These tests often measure logical-mathematical intelligence, but where does visual-spatial intelligence appear in a conversation on intelligence? In the 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, psychologist Howard Gardner disputes that only one intelligence exists.
Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences proposes that not only are we born with varying levels of intelligence, but we also have at least eight of them. In addition to visual-spatial intelligence, the additional seven listed in the theory of multiple intelligences include:
- Linguistic-verbal intelligence: The ability to understand written and verbal language, capacity to learn new languages, and ability to use words well when writing or speaking.
- Logical-mathematical intelligence: Individuals with this intelligence are good at understanding and identifying logical or numerical patterns, have excellent problem-solving skills, and can solve complex calculations.
- Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: This refers to physical movement, coordination and motor control. People who exhibit bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are often physically strong, flexible, balanced, and dexterous.
- Musical intelligence: The ability to produce, discern, and transform sounds, rhythm, pitch, and melody. Musical intelligence is often expressed through singing, composing music, or playing musical instruments.
- Interpersonal intelligence: The ability to understand and relate to other people. Interpersonal intelligence is characterized by leadership, efficient communication, and relationship building.
- Intrapersonal intelligence: This refers to the awareness and understanding of one’s own feelings, emotional states, strengths, and weaknesses and is characterized by self-reflection.
- Naturalistic intelligence: People with high naturalistic intelligence are often highly in tune with nature and interested in nurturing and exploring the environment.
Depending on the setting or situation, one intelligence is often prioritized over another. While logical-mathematical intelligence might be favored in academic settings and interpersonal intelligence is the backbone for effective leadership, visual-spatial intelligence holds many benefits in the daily lives of anyone who utilizes the skills.
The advantages of visual-spatial intelligence
Visual-spatial skills are a regular part of your daily life. You use these skills whenever you tie your shoes, walk through a crowd, or read a map. Young children also use these skills, which further develop their visual-spatial intelligence. Common examples of children using visual-spatial intelligence include learning to catch, imagining where a toy is before they get it, recognizing colors, and drawing shapes.
Development of visual-spatial intelligence should start as soon as possible. It can be strengthened over time and provides children and adults with many advantages. It allows you to be:
- Creative: Use imagination and innovation for problem-solving
- Proficient in the arts: Interpret, understand, and create works of art
- Good with directions: Recall directions and find your way without a map
- Mechanically adept: Navigate vehicles with skill, create models, repair things when they break, and take things apart and put them back together
- Skilled at interpreting graphs, charts, and pictures: Visualizing people and objects in 3D
Another advantage of visual-spatial intelligence is its connections to math and STEM skills. Although logical-mathematical intelligence is more obvious in relation to math and STEM, visual-spatial processing skills affect how you solve equations and work with multi-digit numbers. For example, when you solve an equation, it matters how the numbers and symbols are placed in relation to each other. The answer for “3+4-1” is not the same as “1-3+4,” and visual-spatial intelligence is what aids you in understanding the placement and solving the correct equation.
Visual-spatial skills can also help in many STEM disciplines and careers by enabling people to visualize and mentally manipulate concepts. Take the formation of the continents. We know that they were formed with the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates. A scientist would use visualization to manipulate the movement of Earth’s land and imagine the process.
Spatial intelligence activities
Once you can identify the qualities and characteristics of visual-spatial intelligence, it’s easier to recognize how often you use it. While the traits seem more obvious in older children and adults, it’s crucial to start building these skills during early childhood education. They play a large role in preparing your children for future performance and success.
You can incorporate several techniques into your teaching style to help improve visual-spatial intelligence in your children. You can:
- Use gestures. A powerful tool used to communicate and teach, gestures can help children learn more efficiently than when teachers use speech alone. It enhances how young children learn spatial relations. Encouraging children to gesture is also a great exercise in spatial reasoning. Research shows that when people have difficulty solving spatial visualization problems, they spontaneously produce gestures. These gestures help them improve their performance on visual-spatial tasks.
- Incorporate spatial language. Spatial language gives children the tools to understand and describe their environments. Children learn better when you assign names to spatial relations. Four categories of spatial terms you can use are shapes (i.e. circle, square, triangle), dimensional adjectives (i.e. small, large, short, long), spatial features (i.e. straight, curved, sharp), and spatial relations (i.e. inside, outside, under, around, in front of, behind).
- Teach visualization. Visualization is creating pictures in our heads based on what we see, read, or hear. Creating mental images helps with understanding. Not only does teaching children to visualize objects enhance their spatial ability, but it’s also connected to improving reading comprehension.
Visual-spatial intelligence can increase over time. While incorporating these techniques will be effective, using them in conjunction with the following 12 activities can help your children excel even further. With a tool like brightwheel’s daily activity report feature, you can easily record activities, share real-time updates with families, and access the learning portfolio for each child as they reach developmental milestones.
Young children love to hear stories; however, many of them also enjoy creating their own. Imaginative storytelling is a great way to boost visual-spatial intelligence by allowing children to be creative and use their imagination. For a classroom activity, give your children a series of pictures, and ask them to create a story. This promotes visualization and allows them to use spatial language as their story comes to life.
Memory card games
The objective of this game is to find all the pairs of cards. Shuffle a group of cards and lay them face up on a table. Allow your children the chance to look at them and memorize their placement. After, turn all the cards over. During their turn, each child can turn over two cards in hopes of creating a pair. If the cards match, they stay face up. If they don’t, you turn the cards over, and another child can choose a pair. The activity ends when all the pairs are found.
Memory card games create opportunities for critical thinking and can improve visual recognition, attention, concentration, and focus.
The ancient art of paper folding, origami, has its deepest roots in ancient Japan. Origami activities can strengthen an understanding of geometric concepts and contribute to children’s understanding of spatial shapes. The activity also promotes hands-on learning, which can lead to improved visual-spatial skills.
Children who do jigsaw puzzles can show greater spatial ability and awareness. Visual-spatial skills allow you to visualize, create, and manipulate yourself and other items in space. These are exactly the skills one calls on to complete a puzzle. Additionally, puzzles exercise your fine motor and decision-making skills. Young children will likely need to start with simple puzzles, but you can move on to more advanced puzzles as their skills progress.
Matching games are great cognitive development activities. They help children with visual recognition, allowing them to identify patterns, relationships, similarities, and differences between objects. Have your children build a block structure from a picture or real-life example. As their visual-spatial intelligence grows, you can adjust the structure to match their skills.
Sports are a great way for children to stay active and practice visual-spatial skills. Because many sports are played with objects and other players, it can strengthen body awareness and orientation. Baseball, basketball, and soccer are three sports that allow you to visualize and analyze your body, teammates, opponents, and the ball, as well as their relationship—distance, proportion, etc.—to each other.
Color of the day
The “color of the day” activity strengthens your children's visual awareness and recognition skills. Assign a color and have your children take note of where they see it appear in the classroom, hallway, or outside. You can also use this activity to help your children notice patterns. For example, if the color is green, they might recognize a plant, trees, and grass. With this observation, you can help them conclude that green is a common color associated with nature.
The hot/cold game requires players to use their orientation skills. To play the game, select an item in the classroom and guide one of your children in finding it. Use “hot” and “cold” to indicate that they’re close or far away, respectively. Phrases like “you’re getting warmer” or “you're getting colder” will help them orient themselves to the object. As your children’s skills develop, allow them to guide their classmates in finding the object.
Chess is a game where you have to figure out how your pieces will navigate the board—a direct tie to visual-spatial intelligence. A strong player stores a database of possible patterns and moves in their mind, and they use this information to decide the best moves to win. While chess is a very advanced activity, some children can start learning as early as four years old.
Visual-spatial intelligence is associated with having a sense of navigation, proportion, and distance. To enhance these characteristics, consider creating a map-making activity for your children. Creating maps will help with visualization, orientation, and spatial awareness skills. Have them recall a place they’re familiar with and prompt them to draw a map of it. Alternatively, you can also turn map-making into a treasure hunt activity. Use the classroom as the location, and after your children create the map, hide treasure within the map and in the classroom so they can find it.
For the mirror game, you’ll start by separating your children into pairs. Have them face each other. Designate one child as the leader. They’ll perform simple movements, and their partner will imitate the leader and act as their reflection. Have the children take turns acting as the mirror. This activity helps strengthen focus, attention, and concentration. It also develops visual-spatial intelligence and the child’s awareness of space and relative distance.
When building with Legos, children need to recognize colors, shapes, and the different amounts of Lego pieces. Earlier studies show that building Lego models can improve the visual-spatial ability of children between three and four years old. It includes their ability to recognize colors, group things according to color, recall items they’ve seen, and match objects according to pairs.
Look at the big picture
When a young child exhibits visual-spatial intelligence, you can see their ability to perceive, analyze, and understand visual information in the world around them. They enjoy visual arts, love puzzles, and are great at recognizing patterns. One of the eight multiple intelligences, visual-spatial intelligence strengthens creativity, artistic ability, and fine and gross motor skills—leading to potential careers in art, science, media, and more. Helping children develop and strengthen their visual-spatial intelligence is a collaborative effort between parents and educators and can be done through easily-incorporated activities at home and in the classroom.