As your baby plays with his blocks or watches you roll a ball to him, he is learning about spatial relations. That may sound like a complex concept, but the California Department of Education describes it simply as the "knowledge of how things move and fit in space and the properties of objects." Infants and toddlers spend much of their time exploring their environment and observing how things move around them. You can help by encouraging your child to use common toys and activities to improve his understanding of spatial relations.
Blocks are a valuable toy for infants and toddlers because they allow for the development of many concepts, including spatial relations. As an infant, your baby might explore the different shapes of the blocks with her hands and mouth, and begin to put them inside a larger container. As she nears the toddler stage, show her how to stack a few blocks, and she will discover the best way to make them balance. When she's around 18 months old, provide her with nesting blocks of various sizes so she can discover how they fit inside each other. Model how to stack and nest the blocks correctly, and then allow her to experiment with them. She may attempt to put the larger one inside the smaller one at first, but after a few attempts she will be able to correct herself.
Young children learn best about their bodies and how to move them through space by being active. Allow your baby time to explore on the floor as he is learning to crawl and then walk, so he can discover some spatial relationships with his body. He will watch as a toy rolls behind the couch; when he tries to crawl behind there as well, he will discover that he cannot fit even though the toy did. Give your toddler opportunities to climb and jump so he'll learn how he can move up and down through space. Set up an obstacle course that allows him to go over, under, around and through different objects, and help him label how he is moving. Say, "You went under the table, and now you are going around the chair."
Shape Sorters and Puzzles
One aspect of spatial relations is understanding how objects fit into different openings. Shape sorters are a perfect toy for developing this concept. As an infant, she may just be interested in tossing the blocks into the open container and dumping them out again. But then, when she reaches the toddler stage, show her how she can fit the different-shaped blocks through the openings on the sorter. Let her discover that the square block will not fit through the circle opening, and praise her when she finds the correct hole. Simple peg puzzles are the next step for older toddlers to practice matching a shape to its outline. She may try to put it in upside down or sideways at first, but you can show her how to turn it so it will fit.
In the Kitchen
The kitchen is a great place for babies and toddlers to learn about spatial relations because it is filled with containers of different shapes and sizes that he can use to explore. Find a low cabinet or drawer that you fill with safe items like plastic containers and wooden spoons, and let your little one have access to it while you are in the kitchen. He can fill a large bowl with his toys or discover how some containers fit inside each other. Ask your toddler to find the biggest or smallest container, or have him match all of the different-sized lids to their containers. While you supervise, let him play with some water in the sink and discover how he can fill one container with water and pour it into another.