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Spatial reasoning

Help children's spatial awareness and spatial reasoning to build a mental basis for later problem solving.

Why spatial reasoning is important

Spatial reasoning is the understanding of how objects can move in a 3-dimensional world.

Babies use these skills to recognise body parts, and the location of objects and people around them. Young children learn and understand spatial concepts through play, like with shape-sorters.

Understanding the physical properties of objects allows children to picture shapes in their minds and think about how they could be manipulated. This is an important building block of mathematical thinking. It lies behind problem solving and later maths skills, including geometry. Children are curious and engage naturally in mathematical play.

Children are practising spatial understanding as they use toys like open-ended building blocks or crawl around in dens. It’s important to teach them spatial words to describe what they are seeing. Spatial reasoning is developed through physical development and has strong links to communication and language from birth.

Children use these skills to understand the physical world around them. Understanding spatial relationships allows children to move and navigate in their world. Activities like climbing and squeezing themselves into different types of space develops this further.

Children will start to recognise and remember how objects have characteristics such as shape, size, volume and weight. Then they can start thinking about the way objects interact and how they can move them and play with them in the 3-dimensional world.

Problem solving is at the heart of mathematics and children should be encouraged use their creativity and to explore, play and push boundaries. You should be looking for mathematical opportunities during daily activities.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of spatial reasoning in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

It is important that the curriculum includes rich opportunities for children to develop their reasoning skills across all mathematical areas including shape, space and measure.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 9, childminder EYFS, page 10, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

Children are naturally curious and like to explore. There are many ways you can help children develop spatial reasoning skills.

From birth to 3 years old help children learn how to:

  • combine objects like stacking blocks and cups
  • put objects inside others and take them out
  • play with interesting shapes like corks, cones and balls
  • use pots and pans, shape sorters and stacking cups

You can help them build their understanding of the 3-dimensional world with physical activities. Young children usually enjoy squeezing themselves into different types of spaces, like dens. Describe children’s climbing and hiding activities as they play, using spatial words like ‘inside, ‘up’, ‘down’ and ‘below’.

Playing with jigsaw puzzles and inset puzzles is a good way to encourage them to think about shapes.

For children aged 3 and 4 years old, encourage them to play freely with building blocks, interlocking shapes, shape puzzles and shape-sorters. Sensitively support children with questions like: ‘What is the same and what is different?’

Encourage children to talk informally about shape properties using words like ‘sharp corner’, ‘pointy’ or ‘curvy’. Talk about shapes as you play with them, for example ‘do we need a piece with a straight edge?’

Provide a variety of construction materials like blocks and interlocking bricks and encourage children to make constructions. Provide den-making materials if possible. Allow children to play freely with these materials, indoors and outdoors. When appropriate, talk about the shapes and how their properties suit the purpose.

Discuss routes and locations, using words like ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’. Take children out to shops or the park and learn to remember the route and the order of things they see on the way.

Make comparisons between objects relating to size, length, weight and capacity. Provide experiences of size changes. For example, ‘what happens when you stretch elastic?’

Suggested activities

Making outdoor dens

You’ll need:

  • large fabric pieces, sheets, curtains
  • cardboard or wooden boxes
  • string, rope, masking tape, glue, sticky tape
  • children size chairs, tables and toys to put inside the den

Help the children make constructions based on how their own familiar spaces and enclosures look.

Talk to children about how to construct a den and what they could use. Check the suitability of the resources before using them.

Consider spatial awareness and how many children will fit. Test the stability of the den as you go along to make sure it won’t collapse.

Babies and children under 2 can join in by climbing or crawling in and out of the den which is part of learning how to move their bodies in a 3-dimensional space.

This activity is a useful way to show children the relationships between shapes, for example, how they are using 2-dimensional shapes to make 3-dimensional shapes. It gives you the opportunity to use spatial words such as sides, corners, curves and equal sides.

The activity links to physical development as the children use their hands to put things together developing fine motor skills. It links to expressive arts and design as they use their imagination to think about how to construct the house out of materials. It links to personal social and emotional development as they discuss the plan and build it together.

Local community walk

You’ll need to:

  • work out a walking route
  • walk the route first, carrying out a risk assessment
  • draw, or mark on a map, the planned route and leave a risk assessment copy at your setting, and carry one with you on the walk with all the children and adults’ details
  • identify places of interest and safe stopping points before you go
  • think about using mobiles, cameras or tablets to - take photos or videos of the walk to look at afterwards
  • take a mobile phone with you

Discuss with the children what to take on the walk, as well as the planned journey and establish walk rules and expectations.

Find out what children already know about their community, drawing their attention to places of interest as you walk and listen carefully to their responses.

Point out community signs and markers as you walk.

Encourage children to record interesting things using pencils, pads, cameras or tablets. Children could use these to construct or illustrate some of the places of interest back in the setting.

Give children a map, with visual clues. This could add focus to the walk, encouraging thinking, reasoning and discussion between children.

You could make chalk marks on the floor while walking such as arrows, signs and symbols but only if allowed in your local area.

Resources could be added for mathematical enquiry for older children for example, using stopwatches, compasses, chalk.

The walk links to the other areas of the early years maths curriculum as children will see numbers and patterns during the walk. It also links to understanding the world as children see road signs and visit areas of the park. As they are taking part in a group activity and following the rules of the walk it links to personal, social and emotional development.

Other activities

Can you build this? is an activity to explore shape characteristics, using everyday and mathematical language to describe them.

Small world play is an activity to help children work out the space they need for their toys.

Scooters, bikes and trikes is an activity to work out routes in an outside space.

Building towers is an activity to help children explore 3D shapes, selecting the best ones to build a tower.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“We allow our children to explore, experiment with and discover nature, alongside providers and other children. We consider how helpful building block play can be. We monitor how children use building blocks to be creative. We support them to challenge themselves, encouraging them to build complex imaginary constructions.”

Tracy, Pen Green, Corby.


  • Children will begin to understand the 3-dimensional world as they build with building blocks, use shape-puzzles or small world toys.

  • Use spatial words for shape and space and position such as ‘above’ ‘below’ ‘inside’ ‘outside’ and ‘besides’ as children carry out activities.

  • Physical activities in the setting like crawling and tunnelling teach awareness of how children’s bodies move in a 3-dimensional space.

  • The understanding of spatial awareness and spatial reasoning forms the mental basis for doing maths in reception class.

Next steps

  • Encourage children to talk about shape, space and number when sharing ideas.

  • Encourage children to ‘have a go’ and not be afraid to make mistakes.

  • Think about making dens with the children to encourage building and constructing activities.

  • Think about taking the children out to local parks so they can explore outside spaces and learn about making journeys and how to describe them.

  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.