Characterizing and Improving Children’s Block-building Skills: Interdisciplinary Studies Using Approaches from Cognitive Science and Computer Science

What can children building with blocks tell us about the way they think about the world? Funded by the National Science Foundation, Amy Shelton, associate dean for research, and her colleagues investigate spatial cognition, which refers to a set of skills that we use every day to think about objects moving in the world, the relationship between objects in space and the way we navigate through the world. Spatial cognition, especially early in development, predicts later spatial and mathematical skills, especially those related to disciplines of science, technology, mathematics and education (STEM) fields. This project focuses on block-building, an accessible and adaptable skill for young children in formal and informal learning contexts. 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.