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Visual-Spatial Processing: What You Need to Know

By Kate Kelly

At a Glance

  • Children use visual-spatial processing skills to read maps, follow dance moves and solve some math problems.

  • They also need these skills to make sense of letters and numbers.

  • Most tasks that involve visual-spatial processing skills also require additional visual processing skills.

You may never have heard of “visual-spatial processing.” But you’ve definitely used it. It helps you do things like find your way home from a new neighborhood or merge in traffic. And long before your child is ready to do either of those things, her visual-spatial processing skills help her function in the classroom and on the playground.

Visual-spatial processing is the ability to tell where objects are in space. That includes your own body parts. It also involves being able tell how far objects are from you and from each other.

Keep in mind that most tasks that we think of as primarily “visual-spatial” require other visual processing skills, too. For example, when you practice dance moves you see in a video, you’re using visual-spatial processing skills. But to practice the moves you have to do things like remember what you saw, which is a different visual processing skill.

Here are some ways kids use visual-spatial processing for everyday tasks.

Math

Math requires visual-spatial processing skills. For example, to solve a problem like 9 + 6 = 15, a child must:

  • Perceive how numbers and symbols are placed in relation to each other on a page and how that placement matters when solving an equation (this also involves visual-sequencing skills). For example, “5 – 3 + 2” has a different answer than “3 – 2 + 5.”

  • Be able to align numbers vertically so she can add or subtract multi-digit numbers.

Some forms of higher math, like trigonometry and calculus, require the ability to imagine an object rotating in space. That’s a visual-spatial processing skill.

Reading

Similar skills are required for reading. A child needs to know that certain shapes, like “w” and “m” and “6” and “9,” can have different meanings depending on how they’re rotated on the page. She has to remember the arrangement of letters on the page to form a word (so she can tell the difference between stop and pots, for instance).

Sports and Other Physical Activities

Visual-spatial processing, in combination with visual-motor skills, lets kids coordinate their movements with what they see. For example, to catch a ball, your child must gauge the speed and distance of the ball in flight and adjust her movements accordingly. Kids use visual-spatial processing skills to walk through a crowded room without bumping into anyone.

Tying a shoe takes visual-spatial processing skills, too. The visual-spatial part of the task involves understanding how the two laces must be looped together, using both the left and right hand.

Navigating Mazes and Maps

Activity workbooks are full of games that require visual-spatial processing. For example, to complete a maze, your child has to look ahead and chart her path. Reading a map requires her to look at the map, know where she is in relation to the starting point and then orient herself in the right direction.

Some kids have trouble with visual-spatial processing. Their difficulties may not be evident until they need to do tasks that require those specific skills. And because visual processing skills overlap so much, it may take time to figure out where the issues lie.

If you’re concerned that these difficulties are affecting your child at school, talk to your child’s teacher or doctor. Together you can come up with strategies, which might include accommodations to help your child succeed at school.

Key Takeaways

  • We use visual-spatial processing to do many kinds of tasks.

  • If your child has trouble with visual-spatial processing, it could affect her performance in reading or math.

  • You can work with your child’s teacher or doctor to find strategies to help.

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