Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Program Name/Specialization

Developmental Psychology


Faculty of Science

First Advisor

Dr. Joanne Lee

Advisor Role



Children’s spatial ability is predictive of their future achievement in many academic and occupational domains, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM; e.g., Wai at el., 2009). During the early years, experiences such as hearing spatial language (e.g., Ferrara et al., 2011) and engaging in spatial activities with three-dimensional (3D) blocks or puzzles (e.g., Casey et al., 2008) are found to facilitate children’s spatial learning. Other than 3D toys, the use of two-dimensional (2D) touchscreen media (e.g., iPads®) by young children has been on the rise (e.g., Rideout, 2013). Technology has become part of children’s daily activities and a tool to promote language learning (e.g., Penuel et al., 2009). However, there is a dearth of research specifically investigating the nature of parent-child interactions and children’s spatial learning using digital mobile devices. Therefore, the present study examined the frequency and variation of parental linguistic input elicited during play using an iPad® (a 2D touchscreen device) and using 3D spatial toys.

In addition to the types of spatial learning (3D versus 2D), factors such as parents’ spatial anxiety and attitudes towards math can also influence their spatial language production. Research suggests that one’s attitude or anxiety towards mathematics can influence the amount of numeracy talk in which individuals engage (e.g., Gunderson et al., 2013). However, no studies have examined the relationship between spatial anxiety and spatial talk. The present study examined whether the amount of parental spatial talk was influenced by their attitudes towards math, spatial anxiety.

The present exploratory study has three objectives: (i) to examine the frequency and variation of parental spatial language during 3D spatial toys versus 2D iPad® visual-spatial applications interactions with their preschoolers, (ii) to investigate whether parental spatial input (i.e., language and activities) predicts children’s spatial knowledge, and (iii) to explore the role of parental spatial anxiety and attitude towards mathematics on their spatial language input. Thirty-four 3- to 5-year-old children and their parents participated in interaction with 3D and 2D spatial learning media at two home visit sessions. Math and spatial activities engaged by the dyads at home, parental level of spatial anxiety, and attitude towards math were assessed. Children were tested with the Woodcock Johnson III Tests (Woodcock et al., 2001) for spatial, math, language competencies, and working memory capacity. Their spatial abilities were also assessed via 3D Mega Blocks© Test of Spatial Assembly (TOSA; Verdine et al., 2014). The sessions were videotaped, transcribed, and coded for the frequency and variation of spatial talk produced by parent-child dyads. Results revealed that parents used more spatial talk with regards to spatial dimensions in 3D interaction and more orientations and transformations during 2D interaction, yet the total frequency and variation of parental spatial talk did not differ between 3D and 2D interaction. As parents engaged in a relatively infrequent spatial talk (6% in 3D talk and 5% in 2D talk), the frequency of parental spatial input was not predictive of preschoolers’ spatial language production, which led to a minimal effect on their spatial competence. Furthermore, parental levels of spatial anxiety and attitudes toward math were not related to the amount of parental spatial input produced during parent-child interactions.

The present study underscores the importance of supporting parents with pointers on how to instill spatial talk and activities with their preschoolers. Implications on the use of 3D and 2D learning media are discussed.

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