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IU neuroimaging study: Building blocks activate spatial ability in children better than board games

Sept. 21, 2016

Research from IU has found that structured block-building games improve spatial abilities in children to a greater degree than board games.

Children playing with blocks

Children underwent brain scans before and after playing with either a block-building game or a word-spelling board game. | Photo By INDIANA UNIVERSITY

The study, which appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, measured the relative impact of two games -- a structured block-building game and a word-spelling board game -- on children’s spatial processing. Such processing includes mental rotation, which involves visualizing what an object will look like after it is rotated.

The research lends new support to the idea that such block games might help children develop spatial skills needed in science- and math-oriented disciplines.

It is also the first study to use neuroimaging to explore the effects of block building on brain activity, said Sharlene Newman, a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, who led the research.

"Block play changed brain activation patterns," Newman said. "It changed the way the children were solving the mental rotation problems; we saw increased activation in regions that have been linked to spatial processing only in the building blocks group."

"Other studies look solely at behavioral changes, such as the improved performance on measures of spatial ability," Newman said. "We're actually scanning the brain."

To conduct the study, IU researchers placed 28 8-year-olds in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner before and after playing one of the two games. Play sessions were conducted for 30 minutes over the course of five days.

To create an equal distribution of spatial ability between the two groups from the start, the children were divided evenly according to several categories that have been linked to differences in spatial ability: gender, age, musical training, mathematical skill and socio-economic status.

Brain scan

Brain scans show increased activation in the anterior lobe of the cerebellum and the parahippocampus during the second mental rotation test after children played with blocks. | Photo By INDIANA UNIVERSITY

The two groups of 14 children also took a mental rotation test while inside the scanner, both before and after playing the games. The test -- a longstanding measure of spatial visualization and analysis -- presents two versions of the same letter, and the children had to decide whether the second letter was simply a rotated version of the same letter or a rotated mirror image of that letter.

There were no differences in mental rotation performance between the two groups in either the brain activation or performance during the first rotation test and scan. But the block play group showed a change in activation in regions linked to both motor and spatial processing during the second scan.

The group who played board games failed to show any significant change in brain activation between the pre- and post-game scans, or any significant improvement on the mental rotation test results.

Ultimately, Newman, who in other work has explored the relationship between math and spatial reasoning, hopes that such findings will help students struggling with math and other disciplines.

"Any way you can improve a child's mathematical competence, whether through block-building or any other method, that's where my interest lies," she said.

Newman is also the director of the IU Imaging Research Facility and associate vice provost of undergraduate education at IU Bloomington. Other IU researchers on the study were Mitchell Hansen, an undergraduate student, and Arianna Gutierrez, a research associate who was an undergraduate at the time of the study. Both are members of the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

The neuroimaging research aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including leveraging health sciences research to improve the state and nation's health.

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