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15 Picture Books That Support Children’s Spatial Skills Development

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Having strong spatial skills -- the ability to understand and mentally manipulate shapes and figures -- has been identified by researchers as characteristic of those who find success in STEM fields and creative pursuits. Developing those skills can start early through activities and the language that caregivers use with children. Parents can also support young children’s spatial reasoning skills by reading them “spatially challenging picture books,” says Temple University’s Nora Newcombe. These includes books that examine scenes from various angles or perspectives, that include maps and spatial language, or whose illustrations require close attention to decipher their meaning.

The power of these books is both in the illustrations themselves and in how parents and educators talk about the pictures with children, says Julie Dillemuth, a spatial cognition geographer. Researchers have found a “vast range in the amount of spatial language that children are exposed to,” says Dillemuth, and this has the potential of creating an early spatial  skills gap.

With these studies in mind, Dillemuth asked herself,  “What if I could write a kids book that would lay the foundation for spatial thinking?”  The result, "Lucy in the City," follows a lost racoon who engages in three spatial activities to find her way home: retracing one’s steps, interpreting a map and being aware of one’s surroundings. She hopes books like hers will help parents talk about spatial concepts with their children and offer “a little extra nudge to help kids acquire these skills.”  

MindShift asked Julie Dillemuth and Kathleen T. Horning,  director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, to recommend some engaging,  spatially challenging picture books for young children. Here are the 15 they selected. 

Yellow BallYELLOW BALL, by Molly Bang  (Ages 1-3)


Three beachgoers interrupt a game of catch to build a sand castle on a busy sandy stretch, so they don’t notice what young readers will see: Their big yellow ball is carried away on the tide to begin a long journey out to sea. Bang's dazzling full-color pastel paintings tell most of the story as they trace the progress of the ball, over dolphins and under sea gulls, beyond a bridge and through a night storm, before being washed ashore on a different beach and into the open arms of another child.  Perspectives change but the bright yellow ball is always visible, even when it’s just a dot on the dark blue ocean. This toddler favorite has been out of print so it’s wonderful to see that a 25th anniversary edition will be available in January 2016.  --Horning

Up Down and AroundUP, DOWN, AND AROUND, by Katherine Ayers and Nadine Bernard Westcott (Ages 2-4)

Two preschool-age children are busy in the garden in a breezy picture book that highlights the concepts of “up,” “down,” and “around.” Digging, planting and watering quickly give way to the garden’s bounty: “Corn grows up. Carrots grow down. Cucumbers climb around and around.” The playful narrative is complemented by Nadine Bernard Westcott’s bright, whimsical illustrations depicting a host of mouthwatering vegetables and a plethora of wiggly, wide-eyed garden creatures, offering lots for children and parents to talk about as they look at the illustrations. --Horning

Rosie's WalkROSIE’S WALK, Pat Hutchins Macmillan (Ages 2-5)

It’s easy to see why "Rosie’s Walk" has been a favorite with young children for almost 50 years. The story follows a hen and a fox around a barnyard. Rosie walks around the pond, over the haystack and past the mill -- completely oblivious to the fox who’s pursuing her and the humorous setbacks he faces on each page. The understated text uses directional words to describe Rosie’s journey. --Horning

Shrinking MouseSHRINKING MOUSE, Pat Hutchins (Ages 2-6)

Fox, Rabbit, Squirrel, and Mouse notice that their friend Owl gets smaller and smaller as he flies away from them, and they logically conclude that he is shrinking. One by one, the animals set off in pursuit and the same thing happens each time -- and then they grow bigger when they return. Even if toddlers don't understand the complexity of the spatial perception, there will be much for them to enjoy in the story, while older children will find humor in the animals' misunderstanding of a concept they themselves have only just mastered. --Horning

Big BugBIG BUG, by Henry Cole  (Ages 2-6)

Size is a matter of relativity in this deceptively simple, striking picture book. The opening spread features a ladybug so large it doesn’t quite fit on the two pages. On the next page, we see the ladybug is now small in relation to the big leaf on which it sits.  Every turn of the page continues to zoom out to show that what was large is now small in comparison to a newly introduced object. Once we get to the big sky with an aerial view of a farm, the comparisons reverse course, moving in closer on details of the farm. The minimal text will invite parents and children to point and talk about what they are seeing in each scene. --Horning

You Are Not SmallYOU ARE NOT SMALL, by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant (Ages 2-6)

A larger bear exclaims to a smaller bear: You are small. The little bear retorts: “I am not small. You are big.” The argument builds between the two, who are similar in appearance except for size and color (one is blue and the other orange), and they resort to calling in their identical friends for comparison. Who is small and who is big? That depends on whom you ask. With simple, sparse text and bold, clean illustrations, this amusing book about size comparison also offers a clever introduction to perspective-taking. --Horning

Follow That MapFOLLOW THAT MAP! A FIRST BOOK OF MAPPING SKILLS, by Scot Ritchie (Ages 3-5)

Ritchie cleverly introduces various kinds of maps by incorporating them into a hunt for two runaway pets. Each page invites the reader to interact with the map in a specific way. Younger kids can follow along in the search for the pets, and older readers can appreciate and learn from the map vocabulary. Because the maps resemble bird's-eye views rather than cartographic maps, there is a lot of action to observe in each of them. --Dillemuth

Piggies in the Pumpkin PatchPIGGIES IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH, by Mary Peterson and Jennifer Rofe (Ages 3-7)

This playful book includes lots of spatial language as the piggies sneak out of the pumpkin patch and run around the farm. It’s a great introduction to spatial prepositions such as through, into and back. The placement of the text on the page mirrors the meaning of the words. For example, the words “along winding wagon tracks” curve around on the page. --Dillemuth

Which is Round Which is BiggerWHICH IS ROUND? WHICH IS BIGGER? by Mineko Marmada (Ages 3-7)

“Which one is round?” The opening page spread poses this seemingly simple question about a round red apple and a long-nosed anteater. The answer is obvious. But with a turn of the page, the apple has been eaten and all that's left is the hourglass shape of the core, while the anteater is now curled up into a tight ball, asleep. "Which one is round? What do you think?" The rest of the book asks additional questions about a series of different pairings. Every time, a turn of the page repeats the original question about the pair, but transforms the appearance of one or both subjects, inviting children to consider more than one answer and to articulate the reasons behind their own response. --Horning

Katy and the Big SnowKATY AND THE BIG SNOW, by Virginia Lee Burton (Ages 4-7)

First published in 1943, this classic with a modern feel opens with an amazing map of “Geoppolis,” which we revisit bit by bit when the town is snowed in and Katy must plow out the various sections of town. The book incorporates cardinal directions and offers readers a neat opportunity to think about the spatial relationships of various city services as Katy figures out how to get where she needs to go next. --Dillemuth

Elephants AloftELEPHANTS ALOFT, by Kathi Appelt (Ages 4-7)

With one word per page spread, the only text in this story is spatial language. Appelt uses positional words that take us on a journey with the elephants in the hot-air balloon. Picture books that have very few words prompt the adult reader to discuss what’s going on in the story with children, and this book’s discussion will touch on a lot of spatial themes. --Dillemuth

Henry's MapHENRY’S MAP, by David Elliot (Ages 4-8)

Henry, a hyperorganized pig, makes a map of the farm to ensure everything is in the right place. This entertaining story introduces the concept of drawing objects in spatial relation to one another. It helps kids understand that a map is a tool to know where things are located and makes the concept of drawing a mapping accessible for young kids. --Dillemuth


This book follows a little lost racoon trying to find her way home. The story introduces readers to three fundamental mapping concepts: interpreting a bird’s-eye view map, paying attention to one’s surroundings and retracing one’s steps as a navigation strategy. Kids trace Lucy’s journey as they look down on the city from the owl’s perspective, counting the blocks as the owl gives Lucy directions. A “Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals” at the back of the book ties the story content to specific types of spatial thinking and offers additional activities to support spatial reasoning.

Actual SizeACTUAL SIZE, Steve Jenkins. (Ages 4-9)

Steve Jenkins always produces engaging, artful science books for children in early elementary school. "Actual Size" presents his trademark cut-paper animals, each accompanied by a pithy line of text. The difference here is the scale: Everything appears at actual size. Jenkins' master stroke, though, is his inclusion of creatures both great and small, so while petite critters fit comfortably within 12-by-20-inch spreads, larger ones appear as evocatively cropped bits and pieces: a gorilla's massive hand; a Siberian tiger's snarling mug; the unnerving, basketball-size eye of a giant squid. The resulting juxtapositions will leave children marveling at one species' daintiness, then shuddering as they mentally sketch in the unseen portions of more formidable beasts. Every child will want to put his or her own hand atop the gorilla’s hand, just for the sake of comparison. --Horning

FlotsamFLOTSAM, by David Wiesner (Ages 5-9)


The three-time Caldecott winner is known for his sophisticated wordless books for older children that require them to “read” the pictures to tell the story in their own words. When an old underwater camera washes up on a beach, the boy who finds it discovers there is film inside. When he has the pictures developed, they reveal an extraordinarily unscientific, fantastical perspective on life beneath the sea. The last photo is of a child, who is holding the photo of a child, who is holding the photo of a child. Using his microscope, the boy finally amplifies the picture 70 times, discovering that the original image contains no fewer than 10 others, all photographs of children standing on beaches. The last few photos are in black-and-white. This helps marks the clear passage of time across the decades in the photographs, just as other details show that the children are standing on beaches around the world, from cold northern climates to warm sunny shores. --Horning

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