Nav: Home

Building a future in science with construction-based toys

February 05, 2018

Childhood play experiences strongly shape a person's spatial skills, according to a new CIRES-led study--those skills can be critical to success in fields like science and engineering. Young adults who played with construction-based toys such as Legos, or with certain types of video games outperformed other peers in tests of spatial reasoning--like the skill needed to mentally rotate objects. And most notably, the new research found that gender differences in spatial skills disappear when the researchers considered the impact of childhood play.

"The human brain is malleable and trainable," said Anne Gold, lead author and director of CIRES Education & Outreach. "By providing spatial training to K-12 children, and providing spatially demanding toys before schooling starts, we can give them the opportunity to develop skills important in fields like science, technology, engineering and math."

The team, who published their work today in Geosphere, surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students and found a huge spread in their spatial skills--students scored between 6 and 75 percent correct responses on a written, spatial-knowledge test. This poses a problem: It's difficult to teach a college-level class with so much variability in skill level. Gold and her colleagues sought to explain this contrast because most geologists need strong spatial skills to be successful.

"All of these students completed a K-12 education. If spatial skills were taught in grade school, we wouldn't see this significant spread of skills across the university classroom," said Gold. "Something must be happening earlier in childhood or outside of school that makes some kids better spatial thinkers."

She and colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder and Carleton College in Minnesota gave written tests to 345 university undergraduates enrolled in geology courses at CU Boulder. Students tackled multiple-choice questions that required them to mentally rotate obscure shapes, for example, or visualize an object's cross section.

The researchers dissected the influence of several factors on spatial skills scores, including: college major, childhood play patterns, standardized test scores, number of science courses taken, and gender. They found that childhood play patterns made a huge difference:

Spatial skill scores were significantly higher among students who engaged with construction-based toys, and certain video games.

Other studies have shown the influence of childhood play on spatial skills, but Gold's team is the first to show how the gender difference well described in the literature is mediated through childhood play.

Overall, male students performed better than female students on the test, but the young women and men who played with construction-based toys and video games performed equally well. In other words, when researchers controlled for the impact of childhood play patterns, gender differences disappeared.

The new research highlights the need for more access to spatial training and experiences for girls and women--or for anyone who desires success in a STEM career. In addition to providing spatially engaging toys to young children, Gold also suggests offering spatial trainings in grade school or even adulthood. She has preliminary evidence that people can improve their skills with spatial training, whether they lacked spatial skills in the first place or have just gotten rusty over the years.

"What you choose to do over your life can affect your spatial reasoning," said Gold. "It doesn't need to be video games or Legos specifically--but you should engage in something that's spatially demanding. It can really make a difference."
-end-


University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Video Games Articles:

Video games can change your brain
Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior.
Researchers find video games influence sexist attitudes
The images and roles of female characters in video games send a powerful message that can influence the underlying attitudes of gamers.
Playing to beat the blues: Video games viable treatment for depression
Video games and 'brain training' applications are increasingly touted as an effective treatment for depression.
Violent video games found not to affect empathy
The link between playing violent video games and antisocial behavior, such as increased aggression and decreased empathy, is hotly debated.
Brain training video games help low-vision kids see better
A new study by vision scientists at the University of Rochester and Vanderbilt University found that children with poor vision see vast improvement in their peripheral vision after only eight hours of training on kid-friendly video games.
Teenagers influenced by video games with alcohol and smoking content
A new study has found that modern popular video games commonly feature alcohol and smoking content and the teenagers who play them are twice as likely to have tried drinking and smoking themselves.
How long should children play video games?
A new study indicates that playing video games for a limited amount of time each week may provide benefits to children, but too much can be detrimental.
Are violent video games associated with more civic behaviors among youth?
Whether violent video games influence the behavior of youth has been a debate that has split the academic community for years.
Serious video games may help increase fruit and vegetable intake
Using a serious video game, Squires Quest! II: Saving the Kingdom of Fivealot, researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture / Agricultural Research Service Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital evaluated how creating implementation intentions (i.e., specific plans) within the goal-setting component in the game helped fourth and fifth grade students improve fruit and vegetable intake at specific meals.
Sexist video games decrease empathy for female violence victims
Young male gamers who strongly identify with male characters in sexist, violent video games show less empathy than others toward female violence victims, a new study found.

Related Video Games Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".