$1.3 Million NSF Grant Exploring Block-Play’s Influence on Child Development

Amy Shelton
Amy Shelton

A Johns Hopkins School of Education researcher has obtained a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant to understand the development of spatial skills among children and their relationship to academic performance.

Amy Shelton, a professor and associate dean for research at the School of Education and director of research for the Center for Talented Youth, is a co-principal investigator with other Johns Hopkins professors on a project that focuses on block-building, which has been identified as a tool for measuring the learning capacity of young children.

The other co-principal investigators of the project, “What Can Children Building with Blocks Tell Us About the Way They Think About the World?,” are Gregory Hager, the Mandell Bellmore Professor of Computer Science in the Department of Computer Science, and Barbara Landau, the Dick & Lydia Todd Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science.

Spatial skills, a set of abilities that allows people to manage, manipulate and organize information in real or imagined space, represent foundational cognitive tools for learning about and interacting with the world.

“We use the block-building process as a window to understand how this complex spatial skill develops, how it is linked to academic learning more generally and how it can be nurtured, moving children from novice to expert builders,” said Shelton.

In the past few decades, there has been a growing recognition that spatial cognition, in addition to math and reading, may be part of the fundamental learning blocks necessary for early academic readiness and achievement.

Block-play represents one of the most accessible and ubiquitous activities that young children engage in, and the development of block construction abilities has long served as a model for understanding spatial development.

“This project has remarkable potential to change the way we teach children,” said Shelton. “The connection between spatial skills and performance in STEM activities suggests that any tools developed to assess and enhance spatial skills may be important to improve STEM outcomes.”