Developing Spatial Relational Language

 Children gain an understanding of spatial relationships when they are building a castle or laying tracks to push a train on. As children engage in activities such as these, they are negotiating the relationships of the objects and the space these objects are occupying. In their play, they are flipping, turning and rotating blocks to fit in particular spaces. 


Often times, however, children lack the language to describe these spatial relationships. Teachers can support children’s ability to describe spatial relationships by “mathematizing”  language as they interact with children in their play; “Oh, I see you flipped the block with the curved side down to make a tunnel in your castle.” Over time, as a teacher models rich language with mathematical precision, children will learn to use this language to describe their play, too. Teachers should use words that indicate position, movement and distance as suggested below:


Position words: over, under, on, off, on top of, in, out, into, top, bottom, below, behind, beside, in front of, in back of, between, next to, by


Movement words: up, down, forward, backward, around, to, from, toward, away from, across, back, forth and through


Distance words: near, far, close to, far from, shortest/longest

*Word list compiled from the Pre-K Guidelines and The Young Child and Mathematics (Copley, 2010)


Picture books are great resources for helping children understand spatial relational language and concepts. One book to try is Joey and Jet by James Yang. This book is about a boy and his dog playing fetch. The author’s spatial relational language is reinforced by the colorful illustrations. After several opportunities to read and reread this book, children can act out the story using a variety of position, movement and distance words.


For additional titles that teach spatial relational language, check out these books that can be found at your local San Antonio Public Library:  

  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins

  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen

  • Yellow Ball by Molly Bang

  • Up and Down by Britta Teckentrup

  • Along a Long Road by Frank Viva

  • Around the House the Fox Chased the Mouse by Rick Walton

  • Over, Under, and Through by Tana Hoban

The Erikson Early Math Collaborative has a wonderful collection of videos on helping children understand and apply the use of spatial relational words. Check out their video using the book Rosie’s Walk on how to teach spatial relational language here.



Copley, J. (2010). The Young Child and Mathematics. 2nd ed. Washington, DC:  NAEYC.

Texas Pre-Kindergarten Guidelines


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Training Spotlight

1st-3rd grade educators worked together to learn engaging ways to develop number sense. Students will develop fact fluency while playing games that use their number sense strategies. By learning their facts in this way, students are not merely memorizing, but rather learning to work with numbers flexibly.  “Low achievers are often low achievers not because they know less but because they don’t use numbers flexibly – they have been set on the wrong path, often from an early age, of trying to memorize methods instead of interacting with numbers flexibly.” Jo Boaler,  Stanford University, 2009


April 8, 2019

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Pre-K 4 SA Professional Learning
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