Without access to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents find themselves looking for ways to support their child’s learning at home and to find creative and engaging activities. Magination Press book, Lucy in the City: A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills by Julie Dillemuth PhD, offers both!

This adapted excerpt from the Lucy in the City explains some different kinds of spatial thinking and offers fun ways for kids to practice them.

Think about a trip you have made often—perhaps to your child’s school, your workplace, or a store. How did you get there? You probably have some sort of mental picture of the route you took and what you saw along the way. When we navigate, we search our “mental map” of an area to figure out where to go. Young children are just starting to develop this ability, as well as other important spatial thinking skills. Exposure to spatial concepts can help foster a young child’s development of spatial thinking skills, and practice can help improve these skills at any age!

Spatial thinking is how we think about and understand the world around us, and concepts of space for problem solving. Thinking analytically about spatial relationships is something adults do every day—by navigating somewhere, putting dishes away in a kitchen cabinet, or playing sports, for example. Grown-ups often take these skills for granted because we use them every day, but young children need to develop these skills.

How Lucy in the City can help:

Lucy in the City tells the story of a raccoon who, distracted by a jar of peanut butter, becomes separated from her family one night and must figure out how to find her way home. The story explores three fundamental spatial themes:

Retracing one’s steps. In the story, Lucy discovers how to retrace her steps when she needs to find her way home. Kids might use this strategy to find a toy or other object they lost somewhere in the house. 

  • Try this with your child at home. Hide an object in the house. Then have your child walk with you as you direct them from where they are to where they can find the object. Think out loud, describing your movements and things in your home that can be landmarks. Use spatial language such as on, above, below, near, next to, and between.“First we need to walk across your bedroom to the door. Then we need to go down the hall to the kitchen. Let’s look in the cabinet next to the oven. There’s the toy! It’s on the shelf above the pots and pans!” If your child is old enough, have them hide an object and describe to you how to find it.
  • This exercises your child’s spatial memory (remembering where things are)  and develops their spatial language vocabulary.

Interpreting a map. What makes a map such a powerful tool is that you can see a larger area than what you see from the ground. Looking at a map adds to your mental map of that environment. Of course, you first need to understand how to read a map, to interpret its unusual perspective and it’s scaled-down representations of features like streets, buildings, and landmarks. Lucy in the City introduces children to this new perspective through a literal birds-eye view, when Lucy enlists an owl to help her figure out where to go. 

  • If you are reading Lucy in the City with a young child, use your finger to trace her path in the pictures. Talk about the different landmarks she passes and how the owl can see the streets and buildings from above. Build a street, town, or park with blocks and toys with your child, and have your child pretend to be an owl flying above. Ask your child to describe what they see!
  • Encourage older kids to make their own maps—of a room, your home, or the neighborhood. They can even create maps from their memory or imagination. How about making a map of a scene from a favorite book or movie? When they’ve drawn a map, ask them to explain it to you.
  • Working with maps will help your child learn about spatial relationships (understanding how different objects relate to each other in space) and spatial representation (reading maps, diagrams, and charts). 

Being aware of one’s surroundings. Awareness of our surroundings  helps us find our way around, lets us retrace our steps, and enables us to match up our mental map with the environment around us. Much like kids—we don’t always have a say in where we go—at first, Lucy merely follows her family members in front of her, not paying attention to where she’s going because she doesn’t need to. But when Lucy is suddenly on her own, she starts to notice smells, sights, and sounds around her, and gains an exciting new awareness of her surroundings.

  • Try playing spatial blind man’s bluff. Cover your child’s eyes with a blindfold (or just ask them to close their eyes, but no peeking!) and turn them around a few times, so they aren’t sure which direction they are facing. Walk them to a different room or space in your home. Ask your child to use their senses: what do they hear, smell, or feel that can tell them where they are? What does the floor feel like? Can they hear music or the washing machine running? Can they smell food cooking or soap? Once they’ve thought about what their senses tell them, ask them to guess where they are in your home. Take turns guiding and guessing!
  • Because our movement is limited due to the pandemic, it’s a great time to explore spaces we usually don’t pay much attention to: the inside of our homes, the yard, or the sidewalk. Encourage your child to use all their senses to become more aware of their surroundings. Take a walk with your child—staying far apart from other people, of course—and look, listen, and touch carefully. Play “I spy with my little eye” or “I hear with my little ear” to build awareness.

Being responsible for your child’s learning at home is a big challenge, but it also provides a great opportunity to have fun experiences together. Everyday experiences and activities provide lots of opportunities for hands-on learning experiences!

Hear Lucy in the City read aloud at Magination Press Story Time!  For free resources and printable activities, click here! See Dr. Dillemuth’s other books about spatial thinking below.

by Julie Dillemuth, PhD

This Article's Author

Julie Dillemuth, PhD, is a spatial cognition geographer and children's writer. She is passionate about writing picture books for children that help develop spatial thinking skills. Her stories have appeared in Highlights for Children and Odyssey magazines. She is also the author of Lucy in the City and Mapping My Day.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • Lucy in the City: A Story About Developing Spatial Thinking Skills

    Julie Dillemuth, Ph.D.

    One night, Lucy the raccoon follows her family out of their den, headed for the best garbage bins in town. Distracted by a jar of peanut butter, she gets separated from her family. How will she ever find her way back to her family and her cozy den?

    With the help of a friendly owl and his bird’s-eye view, Lucy tunes into the world around her and navigates herself home!

    Reading this book with your children will help them develop their own spatial thinking skills — how we think about and understand the world around us and use concepts of space for problem solving. Early exposure to spatial concepts can help foster this type of cognitive development in children and boost their math and science learning as they progress through school.

    Includes a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals with more information about spatial concepts, as well as questions, games, and activities designed to encourage children’s spatial thinking skills.

  • Camilla, Cartographer

    Julie Dillemuth, Ph.D.

    Camilla loves maps. Old ones, new ones, she loves them all! She often imagines what it must have been like to explore and discover a new path for the first time.

    One morning, Camilla wakes up to a huge snow storm. Her neighbor Parsley can’t find the path to the creek. But Camilla has her old map — which inspires her to make her own path and her own map!

    Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers celebrating discovery, adventurous problem-solving, and a love of maps.

  • Mapping My Day

    Julie Dillemuth, PhD

    Follow Flora and her family as she takes us through her day with maps — from breakfast, to school, and even through a dog agility course!

    Kids love maps! Learning to read and draw maps is a fun and natural way to develop spatial thinking skills — how we think about and understand the world around us and use concepts of space for problem solving.

    Includes a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals with more information about spatial thinking and awareness, as well as games and activities designed to encourage map-building skills and to enhance math and science learning.