When I think of visual-spatial skills, I think of an aptitude test I took in high school where I had to analyze different shapes and figure out what they would look like if they were turned this way or that. I didn’t give it much more thought than that at the time, but visual-spatial skills are increasingly important in today’s world.
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Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences
Visual-spatial intelligence is one of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory expands what we think of as intelligence. Instead of just academic intelligence, or book smarts, Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences leaves room for people to excel in other areas.
Gardner’s multiple intelligences include musical, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and visual-spatial.
Visual-spatial intelligence is the ability to visualize objects’ positions, shapes, movements, and their relationships to other objects. For me to grasp visual-spatial intelligence, I think about two things. First, that aptitude test I took in high school. I had to mentally flip objects around and move them to be able to get the test questions correct.
Second, Ikea furniture. Nothing makes me think visual-spatial intelligence (or lack thereof) like putting together some Ikea furniture. My husband was just building an armoire. I came downstairs and saw that one of the shelves should have been inverted and rotated to fit better into the frame.
That’s visual-spatial intelligence—being able to mentally picture how objects will look when they’re moved and how that will change their relationship to other objects. If I’m being totally honest, the shelf still ended up being upside down, so maybe my visual-spatial intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
How to Improve Your Visual-Spatial Skills
Thinking about visual-spatial skills as intelligence might give you the impression that it’s innate—you’re either born with it or you’re not. But that’s not at all true.
I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s mindset theory, and I think it’s a great way to think about visual-spatial skills as well. A growth mindset is when you think that your skills and abilities are malleable—that you can improve with dedication and practice over time.
On the other hand, a fixed mindset is when you think skills and abilities (like visual-spatial intelligence) are fixed—that you’re either born with it or you’re not.
It’s important to have a growth mindset when it comes to visual-spatial skills. There are exercises and activities you can do each day to improve your ability to visualize objects, their relationships to other objects, and their positions in space.
1. Move Your Body
One way to improve your visual-spatial skills is to be one of those moving objects. That’s right—move your body.
Visual-spatial intelligence includes being able to visualize your body’s relationship to other objects in space, so movement that requires this kind of bodily intelligence can beef up your visual-spatial skills. Think dance and martial arts. If you have to strain your brain to figure out which foot goes where, then you’re probably strengthening your visual-spatial skills as well as your body.
You can also pay attention to objects’ shapes, sizes, and relationships to other objects, while you’re outside taking a walk. What’s in the background? What’s in the foreground? How far is that tree away from that creek? Study the scenery as objects and examine those objects’ position as compared to other objects.
2. Paint a Pretty Little Painting
Visual arts can also help your visual-spatial skills. I vividly remember watching Bob Ross paint his pretty little trees on PBS when I was a kid. I would watch for hours because I was fascinated by the way he could create such depth in his paintings.
When I painted, everything was the same size and on the same plane. Not Bob Ross. His paintings had objects with clear relationships to other objects. The mountains were in the background. The trees were in front of the mountains. Birds were flying here and there, from foreground to background.
What better way to enhance your visual-spatial skills than wielding your own paintbrush and painting your own happy little trees? Even if you’re no Monet, you’ll still be practicing the skill of visualizing objects and their relationships to other objects. You can even find Bob Ross’s tutorials on YouTube still if you want to learn from the master himself.
3. Ditch the GPS
While you’re at it, you might as well ditch your GPS the next time you’re driving or walking somewhere. GPS does us no favors in terms of visual-spatial skills. You don’t have to pay any attention to where you are or how you’re going to get yourself to point B when you’re using GPS.
So, turn off the phone and find yourself a map. Before your next adventure, study the map and figure out how to get from point A to point B. Studying maps is a great way to force your brain to boost its visual-spatial skills.
4. Play Video Games
Video games are another way to work your visual-spatial skills. Think Tetris or Snood. I know I’m dating myself, but these games are a great way to visualize objects’ shapes, sizes, and relationships to other objects. They’re also a great way to visualize how objects will affect other objects when they move through space. It’s definitely a bonus that they’re also fun and a great way to pass the time on a long GPS-free car trip.
5. Try 3D Puzzles
There is also a whole slew of 3D puzzles you can try. I always think of the 3D Empire State Building puzzle but there are tons of other options. The sky’s the limit, really.
Even a regular puzzle is a fine way to practice your visual-spatial skills since you have to imagine what pieces will look like when they’re flipped and turned. So, find yourself a puzzle, hunker down, and boost those visual-spatial skills.
6. Bust Out the Brain Teasers
You can also find brain teasers that are reminiscent of that high school aptitude test I took. These are just visual questions about which shape comes next to make a pattern or what this shape would look like if inverted or rotated. These brain teasers are also a ton of fun for children.
7. Build Stuff
Let’s say you’ve done the brain teasers and you’ve built the puzzles, and you’re still hungry for more visual-spatial skill-building. I’ve got you covered. You can literally build things.
When I was a kid, I competed in Odyssey of the Mind. We did the challenge where you had to build a structure out of balsa wood. The structure had to be super strong and endure weights and collisions, so the very act of designing and building this lightweight yet strong structure demanded intense visual-spatial skills and problem-solving.
Now, you don’t have to build a balsa wood structure to boost your visual-spatial skills. You could build a contraption to protect a raw egg from a high fall. You could build a chicken coop. You could even build some Ikea furniture. It’s up to you, but if you want to keep your skills sharp, just build something.
You can also boost your visual-spatial skills by reading. Any book that involves objects (including people) moving through space helps improve your skills. It’s way better than a film or TV show because you have to picture the action in your mind, and that’s what visual-spatial skills are all about: visualizing objects.
9. Pick Up an Instrument and Play
Studies have also shown that playing a musical instrument boosts your visual-spatial skills. Again, this has to do with imagination and visualization. To play an instrument you have to picture how your body needs to move to create a certain sound.
So, the next time you’re plunking away at the piano, you can encourage yourself by saying that while you may not be the best pianist, at least you’re boosting your visual-spatial skills.
Why Visual-Spatial Skills Matter
More and more jobs require visual-spatial skills. It used to be the turf of architects and designers, but now an increasing amount of programming, computing, and tech jobs also require people to be able to mentally manipulate objects in space.
You need visual-spatial skills to be able to think abstractly and understand how details fit together to create the big picture.
So, whether you’re painting, playing, building, or roaming, the results are the same. Boost your visual-spatial skills to better understand the world and your place in it and to finally be able to put together that Kleppstad armoire from Ikea.
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Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com