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Children demonstrate an awareness of how objects and people move and fit in space.

Spatial relationships refer to children’s understanding of how objects and people move in relation to each other. In infancy, children use their senses to observe and receive information about objects and people in their environment. They can see and follow people and objects with their eyes. They focus on mouthing and grasping objects to learn about their physical properties.

As they grow, children use trial and error to experiment with movement. They attempt to fit objects in space, such as dropping objects into containers. With newfound mobility, children learn about their own body and its relationship to the physical environment around them. They may crawl around obstacles and over people or move objects out of their way, to reach their intended goal.

With growing language and cognitive abilities, children understand words that characterize and describe objects in their environment. They know what a large object is versus a small one and can understand simple prepositions. Their improving hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills allow them to use trial and error in solving more complex challenges, such as fitting puzzle pieces in their corresponding slot or successfully dropping shapes into a shape sorter. Children are able to move their bodies in different ways to accomplish goals, such as squeezing their bodies into a small space, or bending down to retrieve an object that has rolled under the table. By 36 months, children use words to describe both people and object properties and can recognize where their bodies are in relation to others without physical trial and error.

Everyday Explorations

Children experiment with object properties from very early on. At first, they use observation to take in information from their environment. They notice contrasts in colors and patterns. They are able to make out human faces and begin to distinguish among them. As children grow, they use physical exploration to learn about object properties. Children go from simply mouthing or patting an object to turning, twisting, or shaking it in order to learn and explore. They learn to identify which objects produce specific results. For example, they can flip on and off a light switch, or press buttons on different objects to produce music or different color lights. Children continue to become more and more aware of object properties as their cognition develops. They will soon be able to name and distinguish between colors and shapes. Children will also be able to identify differences in weight and quantity. Sensory experiences, such as water and sand play, also support children in distinguishing between different textures.

Birth to 9 months

Children use observation and sensory exploration to begin building an understanding of how objects and people move in relationship to each other.

Indicators for children include:

  • Observes objects and people in the immediate environment, e.g., looks at own hands and feet, tracks caregiver with eyes, turns head toward sounds
  • Reaches and grasps for objects
  • Explores through the use of different senses, e.g., begins to mouth and/or pat objects
  • Focuses attention on an object in motion and follows it, e.g., watches a toy roll away after it falls

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide interesting and age-appropriate toys and objects for exploration
  • Engage and interact with the child frequently during the day; follow the child’s lead during play

7 months to 18 months

Children begin to use trial and error in discovering how objects and people move and fit in relationship to each other.

Indicators for children include:

  • Puts objects in a bucket and then dumps them out; repeats this action
  • Begins to identify physical obstacles and possible solutions when moving around, e.g., crawls around a chair instead of under it
  • Drops objects such as toys and watches them move
  • Discriminates between small and large objects, e.g., uses one hand or two hands in a variety of ways

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide different types of objects that the child can move around, e.g., toy cars, balls, nesting cups
  • Create safe play spaces in which the child can crawl, climb, and move around
  • Provide time outside for the child to explore and interact

16 months to 24 months

Children have a clearer sense of size and direction and use this knowledge to expand their understanding of how objects move and fit in relationship to each other.

Indicators for children include:

  • Understands words that characterize size, e.g., big, small
  • Uses simple trial and error to complete simple puzzles, e.g., matches piece, orients and attempts to turn to make a puzzle piece fit
  • Recognizes the proper direction of objects, e.g., will turn over an upside-down cup
  • Begins to understand simple prepositions, e.g., under, in, behind

Strategies for interaction

  • Narrate while assisting the child in figuring out a solution, e.g., “Let’s try to turn the puzzle piece this way”
  • Provide the child with opportunities to problem-solve with and without your help; minimize the possibility for the child to become frustrated
  • Start to ask the child to do complete simple actions that include a preposition, e.g., “Can you put the book on the table?”

21 months to 36 months

Children can better predict how objects and people will fit and move in relationship to each other. Children have knowledge of object properties and apply this knowledge without having to rely on physical trial and error.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses words and gestures to describe size of objects
  • Recognizes where his or her body is in relation to objects, e.g., squeezing in behind a chair
  • Completes simple puzzles with less trial and error, e.g., can match a puzzle piece to its correct slot by identifying the size and shape by simply looking at it
  • Actively uses body to change where he or she is in relation to objects, e.g., climbs to sit on the couch

Strategies for interaction

  • Provide puzzles and other fine-motor activities for the child to engage in
  • Engage in movement activities that promote balance skills
  • Describe everyday objects by size, shape, and other characteristics
  • Create a safe obstacle course where the child can run, climb, crawl, scoot, and maneuver his or her body
Reviewed: 2012