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"Space Cadets" -- The Discovery Files

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A University of Chicago study has shown that children who learn to use a wide range of words related to spatial knowledge also show improved spatial skills.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Taking Up Space.

(Sound effect: theme music) I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

When you were a kid, did you have one of those toys where you had to put different shapes into corresponding holes? That's spatial learning. A groundbreaking University of Chicago study is giving us insight as to the importance of verbal cues in spatial learning.

The project involved videotaping 52 children all under four years old and their caregivers (mostly moms) simply having playtime together. The researchers focused in on specific verbal references to spatial concepts: words that describe size, geometry or physical features. The team noted the number of times caregivers and kids used spatial language. Some caregivers had as few as five others as many as 525 instances during the recorded sessions. And the more references the caregivers gave the more references the kids used.

When the kids turned four-and-a-half, they brought them back and tested their spatial skills: like how well they could mentally rotate objects, and pick out the same spatial relations when different objects were involved.

The result: for every 45 spatial words the kids had used in the play sessions, there was a 15 to 23 percent increase in their skill level score.

Bottom line: when playing, use the terms communicate the concepts. I guess space (or talking about it) shouldn't be the final frontier but maybe one of the first.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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