Playing Tablet Games with Young Children to Promote Spatial Thinking

August 30, 2018

Young children’s access to and use of mobile technology (i.e. tablets) has grown dramatically as devices become smaller and more universal. These devices are often used alone by children, yet it’s known that young children learn content and build vocabulary from interaction with peers and adults. While many tablet based activities may be good for individual play, we would like to suggest intentionally playing some of these games with young children. Often referred to as joint media engagement (or co-viewing when applied to television), this includes the use of media with the participation of both adults and children, either intentionally or spontaneously. The important part is to engage in the tablet activities together, talk about the content, and provide help when the child need support to succeed.

The benefits of participating in literacy activities, such as reading and talking with young children, are well known. Perhaps surprisingly, recent research has found that young children’s mathematical knowledge at the beginning of elementary school is more closely related to both their math and literacy skills later on in elementary school than their initial reading skills. While this does not necessarily mean that high early math scores caused the later math and reading scores, it does suggest that it’s worth spending time focusing on math in the early years. Playing hands-on and tablet-based math games can be a really great way for parents and young children to engage in learning activities.

To illustrate how parents and preschoolers may engage in tablet-based math learning together, we would like to share a free iPad based game that was designed for parents and preschoolers to do together. The digital game, Map Adventure, is integrated with other hands-on and daily activities, in order to encourage math learning (spatial orientation concepts and vocabulary) and math talk between parents and children.

Specifically, these activities encourage parents to:

  • Read books that incorporate spatial thinking into the story. For example, in Lucy in the City, a raccoon gets lost and with the help of a friendly owl, uses direction to navigate home.

  • Play On the Go Activities, which encourages the use of spatial vocabulary as children experience movement through space first hand (i.e. “turn the car right to see my school”) and can be done while families are move from place to place during normal daily activities.

  • Set up Meal Time Activities, which also integrate into daily activities and provide a context for using spatial words and see them put into action (i.e. “put the berries on top of the yogurt”).

  • Do Paper Play Activities with your children to help them use their spatial skills by creating and navigating 2D maps in a playful, game like format.

  • Play Together with a Digital Game (Map Adventure) to encourage learning with fun spatial thinking activities. Map Adventure includes three types of activities throughout the game for parents and children to play together, including:

    • Spatial Manipulation Activities: players’ characters visit locations on a map and move objects within those locations to accomplish a task (i.e. use hoses to clean off dirty pigs),

    • Navigating Activities: players move characters around a map to various landmarks (i.e. move characters to the barn), and

    • Complex Navigation Activities: players move characters around a map to collect animals while avoiding obstacles (i.e. collect all the pigs on the page, while avoiding goats).

Findings from our pilot study with 49 parents and their preschool children suggest that preschoolers made noticeable gains in spatial learning and completed spatial tasks more independently after engaging with these intervention activities. In addition, preschoolers and their parents enjoyed the experience of learning through both digital and non-digital activities and parents reported feeling more motivated and confident in their ability to integrate math into daily family activities.

Early Math with Gracie and Friends Family Guide provides access to all these hands-on and digital activities for free.

Written by

Ashley Lewis Presser

Ashley Lewis Presser is a Research Scientist at the Education Development Center’s Center on Children and Technology. Dr. Lewis Presser’s work focuses primarily on research and development related to early childhood, mathematics, and science. Her projects cover a wide range that includes research-infused development of curricular materials and tablet games for preschool mathematics, evaluation of STEM programs, and conducting quasi-experimental and randomized controlled experiments. She earned a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and both an M.A. and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota.