What is spatial reasoning and is it an innate ability?

What is spatial reasoning and is it an innate ability?


This article will define spatial reasoning and discuss if this skill is an innate ability, and will also suggest ways to develop spatial reasoning. Let’s start with trying to define this topic.

What is spatial reasoning?

A spatial reasoning definition taken from the Spatial Ability book written by I. Macfarlane Smith (1964) states ‘it is the capacity to perceive and hold in mind the structure and proportions of a form or figure, grasped as a whole.’ This imagining or ability to visualise and manipulate objects in your mind is one key aspect of spatial reasoning. An example of spatial reasoning is being able to look at a shape and imagine what it would look like from another angle or even if it were cut in half.

Information from the Government website on how to support early years learners mentions that understanding the physical properties of objects allows children to picture shapes in their minds and think about how they could be manipulated. The site explains how spatial reasoning is an important foundation of mathematical thinking. For example, it supports problem solving and geometry in later life.

How is spatial reasoning tested in the 11+?

Below are some examples on how spatial reasoning can be tested in the 11+ exams.

  • What a cube might look like if it is rotated
  • Deciphering how a 3D shape might appear from a top-down view
  • How many blocks are in a pile if some are unseen?
  • What a folded squared piece of paper with holes punched into it will look like when it is unfolded
  • What does a 2D or 3D object look like when it is rotated?

If your child has ever tried to solve a Rubik’s cube, they have completed a type of spatial reasoning test.

If your child is preparing for a GL Assessment or CEM 11+ exam, there is very likely to be a spatial reasoning section. Visual-spatial abilities are used in everyday roles for fixing equipment, understanding or estimating distance and measurement, for instance. There are a number of fields that rely on spatial abilities, including sports, mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, economic forecasting, meteorology, chemistry and physics.

A spatial reasoning test involves four separate areas of spatial ability:

  1. Spatial perception: This is the ability to perceive and visually understand outside spatial information e.g., features, properties, measurement, shapes, position, and motion (Fig. 1). Often action computer games use these spatial perceptual skills. Another example might be when one is navigating through a dense forest or a maze, they are using spatial perception and awareness.

Fig. 1: Which of the cubes could be made from the net?

  1. Mental rotation: This element is very much tested in an 11+ exam and is the ability to mentally represent and rotate both 2D and 3D figures in space quickly and accurately, while the shape’s features remain unchanged (Fig. 2). Jigsaw puzzles and Tetris are activities that involve a higher level of mental rotation and can be practiced, improving spatial abilities over time.

Fig. 2: Choose the figure on the right that is a rotation of the figure on the left.

  1. Spatial visualisation: This is characterised as complicated multi-step manipulations of spatially presented information. It involves visual imagery, which is the ability to mentally represent visual appearances of a shape, and spatial imagery, which consists of mentally representing spatial relations between parts of the shapes (Fig. 3). In a real-life situation, an astronomer must mentally visualise the structures of a solar system and the motions of the objects within it. An engineer would need this skill to mentally visualise the part of the building or machinery they are assigned to design or work with.

Fig. 3: Select the answer which correctly shows how many blocks are in each diagram.


  1. Mental folding: There is a specific question type titled ‘Fold and Punch’ which needs this skill (Fig. 4). Mental folding usually requires mental rotations and working backwards from a series of sequential folds to a piece of squared paper. Origami is a useful activity to improve this complex spatial visualisation skill.

Fig. 4: Look at the square of paper, which is folded up and then has holes punched through it. Which answer option shows what the paper would look like when it is unfolded?

How can you help your child develop spatial reasoning?

There are several ways of developing spatial reasoning both at school and at home. Many people state that space and memory are essentially connected, and memory palaces certainly support this argument. This involves storing information in your mind that you need to remember. An example might be remembering objects within your home, or phone numbers and grocery lists; this recall trains you to retrieve and recount spatial knowledge.

Teachers often have two-dimensional and three-dimensional figures to teach children about spatial reasoning. Developing a strong vocabulary to describe different shapes and their characteristics is also important. At home, building towers, forts and creating obstacle courses to practise spatial reasoning, while discussing the positioning of shapes, can help begin building these key skills from a very young age.

The question from this article is: do children have an innate spatial reasoning ability? It was once thought that this ability was innate or hereditary, but studies have shown that repeated practice can significantly improve spatial reasoning. Therefore, the thought that some people possess spatial skills and others don’t appears to be a myth and through targeted practice spatial skills can be improved.

Below are some suggestions on how to improve spatial reasoning:

  • Set up different 3D challenges. For example, using Google Maps to find the quickest route to different locations.
  • Complete different jigsaw puzzles which can vary in difficulty. This explores rotational skills and observing shade/size/shape which are key skills across both non-verbal and spatial reasoning.
  • Use a physical mirror to practice reflection questions.
  • Put together a 3D model (e.g. cars or castles). This can really develop your skills while also being highly rewarding.
  • Use nets of different shapes to help children with their folding skills.
  • Play chess. This involves spatial intelligence, especially if you visualise a few steps ahead. In order to do this, you must visualise the changing composition of the board, step by step, without moving a single chess piece.
  • Fly a drone. This is harder than it sounds and is a great way to develop rotation skills in order to correctly orient it.

In summary, spatial intelligence is not something you are born with, it’s something that can be trained and improved through focused practice. Research has proven that playing with construction-based toys such as Lego, Meccano and spatially-challenging video games can enhance spatial reasoning skills. In the 11+ exams there are several different question types that require good spatial perception and visualisation, mental rotation and folding skills; there are plenty of enjoyable activities that children can participate in to make developing spatial reasoning fun.


Answers: Figure 1: B Figure 2: D Figure 3: A Figure 4: D


By Chris Pearse

Chris Pearse is a qualified Primary School Teacher with 10 years' experience in teaching. He started Teachitright in 2006 to provide support for children taking secondary school exams and is passionate about helping children achieve their potential whilst enjoying education. Chris co-authored the Collins 11+ Support and Practice Workbooks for GL Assessment and the CEM test.

Discover more from Collins 11+ here