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6
The Teaching-Learning Paths
for Geometry, Spatial Thinking,
and Measurement
Geometry, spatial thinking, and measurement make up the second area
of mathematics we emphasize for young children. In this chapter we pro-
vide an overview of children’s development in these domains, lay out the
teaching-learning paths for children ages 2 through kindergarten in each
broad area, and discuss instruction to support their progress through these
teaching-learning paths. As in Chapter 5, the discussion of instruction is
closely tied to the specific mathematical concepts covered in the chapter.
Chapter 7 provides a more general overview of effective instruction.
GEOMETRY AND SPATIAL THINKING
The Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal stated that geometry and
spatial thinking are important because “Geometry is grasping space. And
since it is about the education of children, it is grasping that space in which
the child lives, breathes, and moves. The space that the child must learn to
know, explore, and conquer, in order to live, breath and move better in it.
Are we so accustomed to this space that we cannot imagine how important
it is for us and for those we are educating?” (Freudenthal, 1973, p. 403).
This section describes the two major ways children understand that space,
starting with smaller scale perspectives on geometric shape, including com-
position and transformation of shapes, and then turning to larger spaces in
which they live. Although the research on these topics is far less developed
than in number, it does provide guidelines for developing young children’s
learning of both geometric and spatial abilities.
175

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176 MATHEMATICS LEARNING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
Shape
Shape is a fundamental idea in mathematics and in development. Be-
yond mathematics, shape is the basic way children learn names of objects,
and attending to the objects’ shapes facilitates that learning (Jones and
Smith, 2002).
Steps in Thinking About Shape
Children tend to move through different levels in thinking as they learn
about geometric shapes (Clements and Battista, 1992; van Hiele, 1986).
They have an innate, implicit ability to recognize and match shapes. But
at the earliest, prerecognition level, they are not explicitly able to reliably
distinguish circles, triangles, and squares from other shapes. Children at this
level are just starting to form unconscious visual schemes for the shapes,
drawing on some basic competencies. An example is pattern matching
through some type of feature analysis (Anderson, 2000; Gibson et al.,
1962) that is conducted after the visual image of the shape is analyzed by
the visual system (Palmer, 1989).
At the next level, children think visually or holistically about shapes
(i.e., syncretic thought, a fusion of differing systems; see Clements, Battista,
and Sarama, 2001; Clements and Sarama, 2007b) and have formed schemes,
or mental patterns, for shape categories. When first built, such schemes are
holistic, unanalyzed, and visual. At this visual/holistic step, children can
recognize shapes as wholes but may have difficulty forming separate men-
tal images that are not supported by perceptual input. A given figure is a
rectangle, for example, because “it looks like a door.” They do not think
about shapes in terms of their attributes, or properties. Children at this
level of geometric thinking can construct shapes from parts, but they have
difficulty integrating those parts into a coherent whole.
Next, children learn to describe, then analyze, geometric figures. The
culmination of learning at this descriptive/analytic level is the ability to rec-
ognize and characterize shapes by their properties. Initially, they learn about
the parts of shapes—for example, the boundaries of two-dimensional (2-D)
and three-dimensional (3-D) shapes—and how to combine them to create
geometric shapes (initially imprecisely). For example, they may explicitly
understand that a closed shape with three straight sides is a triangle. In the
teaching-learning path articulated in Table 6-1, this is called the “thinking
about parts” level.
Children then increasingly see relationships between parts of shapes,
which are properties of the shapes. For instance, a student might think of a
parallelogram as a figure that has two pairs of parallel sides and two pairs
of equal angles (angle measure is itself a relation between two sides, and

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PATHS FOR GEOMETRY, SPATIAL THINKING, AND MEASUREMENT 177
TABLE 6-1 Space and Shapes in Two Dimensions
Goals
C. Perceive, Say,
A. Perceive, Say, Describe/Discuss,
Describe/Discuss, and Construct
Steps/Ages and Construct B. Perceive, Say, Describe/ Compositions and
(Level of Objects in 2-D Discuss, and Construct Spatial Decompositions in
Thinking) Space Relations in 2-D Space 2-D Space
Step 1 (Ages 2 and 3)
Thinking Recognition and Recognize shapes in many Solve simple puzzles
visually/ informal description different orientations and sizes. involving things in
holistically (including at least Trial-and-error geometric the world.
circles, squares, movements (informal, not Create pictures by
then triangles, quantified). representing single
rectangles). • se relational language,
U objects, each with a
including vertical different shape.
directionality terms as “up”
and “down,” referring to a
2-D environment.
• nformally recognizes area as
I
filling 2-D space (e.g., “I need
more papers to cover this
table”).
Thinking Shapes by number
about of sides (starting
parts with restricted cases,
e.g., prototypical
equilateral triangle,
square).
Step 2 (Age 4)
Thinking Recognition and Recognize shapes (to the left)
visually/ informal description in many different orientations,
holistically at multiple sizes, and shapes (e.g., “long”
orientations, and “skinny” rectangles and
sizes, and shapes triangles).
(includes circles • atch shapes by using
M
and half/quarter geometric motions to
circles, squares superimpose them.
and rectangles, • se relational words
U
triangles, and of proximity, such as
others [the pattern “beside,” “next to,” and
block rhombus, “between,” referring to a 2-D
trapezoids, hexagons environment.
regular]).
continued

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178 MATHEMATICS LEARNING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
TABLE 6-1 Continued
Goals
C. Perceive, Say,
A. Perceive, Say, Describe/Discuss,
Describe/Discuss, and Construct
Steps/Ages and Construct B. Perceive, Say, Describe/ Compositions and
(Level of Objects in 2-D Discuss, and Construct Spatial Decompositions in
Thinking) Space Relations in 2-D Space 2-D Space
Thinking Describe and name Move shapes using slides, flips, Move shapes using
about shapes by number and turns. slides, flips, and turns
parts of sides (up to the • se relational language
U to combine shapes to
number they can involving frames of reference, build pictures.
count). such as “to this side of,” For rectangular
Describe and name “above.” spaces
shapes by number of • ompare areas by
C • opy a design
C
corners (vertices). superimposition. shown on a grid,
For rectangular spaces placing squares
• ile a rectangular space with
T onto squared-grid
physical tiles (squares, right paper.
triangles, and rectangles with
unit lengths) and guidance.
Relating Sides of same/ Predict effects of rigid geometric Combine shapes
parts and different length. motions. with intentionality,
wholes • ight vs. nonright
R recognizing them as
angles. new shapes.
• n an “equilateral
I
triangle world,”
create pattern block
blue rhombus,
trapezoid, and
hexagons from
triangles.
Step 3 (Age 5)
Thinking Recognition and
visually/ informal description,
holistically varying orientation,
sizes, shapes
(includes all above,
as well as octagons,
parallelograms,
convex/concave
figures).

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PATHS FOR GEOMETRY, SPATIAL THINKING, AND MEASUREMENT 179
TABLE 6-1 Continued
Goals
C. Perceive, Say,
A. Perceive, Say, Describe/Discuss,
Describe/Discuss, and Construct
Steps/Ages and Construct B. Perceive, Say, Describe/ Compositions and
(Level of Objects in 2-D Discuss, and Construct Spatial Decompositions in
Thinking) Space Relations in 2-D Space 2-D Space
Thinking Shape by number Create and record original
about of sides and corners compositions made using
parts (including new squares, right triangles, and
shapes). rectangles on grid paper. Extend
to equilateral grids and pattern
blocks (those with multiples of
60° and 120° angles).
• egin to use relational
B
language of “right” and
“left.”
• raw a complete covering
D
of a rectangle area. Count
squares in rectangular arrays
correctly and (increasingly)
systematically.
Relating Measure of sides Compare area using Composition on grids
parts and (simple units), gross superimposition. and in puzzles with
wholes comparison of angle • or rectangular regions, draw
F systematicity and
sizes. and count by rows (initially anticipation, using
may only count some rows as a variety of shape
rows). sets (e.g., pattern
• dentify and create symmetric
I blocks; rectangular
figures using motions (e.g., grids with squares,
paper folding; also mirrors as right triangles, and
reflections). rectangles; tangrams).
NOTE: Most of the time should be spent on 2-D, about 85 percent (there are many beneficial
overlapping activities).
equality of angles another relation). Owing usually to a lack of good expe-
riences, many students do not reach this level until late in their schooling.
However, with appropriate learning experiences, even preschoolers can be-
gin to develop this level of thinking. In Table 6-1 this is called the “relating
parts and wholes” level.
Development of Shape Concepts
What ideas do preschool children form about common shapes? De-
cades ago, Fuson and Murray (1978) reported that, by 3 years of age, over

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180 MATHEMATICS LEARNING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
60 percent of children could name a circle, a square, and a triangle. More
recently, Klein, Starkey, and Wakeley (1999) reported the shape-naming ac-
curacy of 5-year-olds as circle, 85 percent; square, 78 percent; triangle, 80
percent; rectangle, 44 percent. In one study (Clements et al., 1999), children
identified circles quite accurately (92, 96, and 99 percent for 4-year-olds,
5-year-olds, and 6-year-olds, respectively), and squares fairly well (82, 86,
and 91 percent). Young children were less accurate at recognizing triangles
and rectangles, although their averages (e.g., 60 percent for triangles for all
ages 4-6) were not remarkably smaller than those of elementary students
(64-81 percent). Their visual prototype for a triangle seems to be of an
isosceles triangle. Their average for rectangles was a bit lower (just above
50 percent for all ages). Children’s prototypical image of a rectangle seems
to be a four-sided figure with two long parallel sides and “close to” square
corners. Thus, young children tended to accept long parallelograms or right
trapezoids as rectangles.
In a second study (Hannibal and Clements, 2008), children ages 3 to
6 sorted a variety of manipulable forms. Certain mathematically irrelevant
characteristics affected children’s categorizations: skewness, aspect ratio,
and, for certain situations, orientation. With these manipulatives, orienta-
tion had the least effect. Most children accepted triangles even if their base
was not horizontal, although a few protested. Skewness, or lack of sym-
metry, was more important. Many rejected triangles because “the point on
top is not in the middle.” For rectangles, many children accepted nonright
parallelograms and right trapezoids. Also important was aspect ratio, the
ratio of height to base. Children preferred an aspect ratio near one for
triangles; that is, about the same height as width. Children rejected both
triangles and rectangles that were “too skinny” or “not wide enough.”
Spatial Structure and Spatial Thinking
Spatial thinking includes two main abilities: spatial orientation and
spatial visualization and imagery. Other important competencies include
knowing how to represent spatial ideas and how and when to apply such
abilities in solving problems.
Spatial Orientation
Spatial orientation involves knowing where one is and how to get
around in the world. As shown in Chapter 3, spatial orientation is, like
number, a core cognitive domain, for which competencies, including the
ability to actively and selectively seek out information, are present from
birth (Gelman and Williams, 1997). Children have cognitive systems that
are based on their own position and their movements through space, and

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PATHS FOR GEOMETRY, SPATIAL THINKING, AND MEASUREMENT 181
external references. They can learn to represent spatial relations and move-
ment through space using both of these systems, eventually mathematizing
their knowledge.
Children as young as age 2 can implicitly use knowledge of multiple
landmarks and distances between them to determine or remember loca-
tions. By about age 5, they can explicitly represent that information, even
interpreting or creating simple models of spaces, such as their classroom.
Similarly, they can implicitly use distance and direction when they move
at age 1-2. They do so more reliably when they move themselves, another
justification for providing children of all ages with opportunities to explore
large spaces in which they can navigate safely. By age 4, children explicitly
use distance and direction and reason about their locations. For example,
they can point to one location from another, even though they never walked
a path that connected the two (Uttal and Wellman, 1989).
Language for spatial relationships is acquired in a consistent order, even
across different languages (Bowerman, 1996). The first terms acquired are
in, on, and under, along with such vertical directionality terms as up and
down. These initially refer to transformations (e.g., “on” not as a smaller
object on top of another, but only as making an object become physically
attached to another; Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1986). Children then learn
words of proximity, such as “beside” and “between.” Later, they learn
words referring to frames of reference, such as “in front of,” “behind.”
The words “left” and “right” are learned much later, and are the source of
confusion for several years.
In these early years, children also can learn to analyze what others
need to hear in order to follow a route through a space. Such learning is
dependent on relevant experiences, including language. Learning and us-
ing spatial terminology can affect spatial competence (Wang and Spelke,
2002). For example, teaching preschoolers the spatial terms “left” and
“right” helped them reorient themselves more successfully (Shusterman and
Spelke, 2004). However, language provides better support for simpler rep-
resentations, and more complex spatial relationships are difficult to capture
verbally. In such cases, children benefit from learning to interpret and use
external representations, such as models or drawings.
Young children can begin to build mental representations of their
spatial environments and can model spatial relationships of these environ-
ments. When very young children tutor others in guided environments,
they build geometrical concepts (Filippaki and Papamichael, 1997). Such
environments might include interesting layouts inside and outside class-
rooms, incidental and planned experiences with landmarks and routes,
and frequent discussion about spatial relations on all scales, including
distinguishing parts of their bodies (Leushina, 1974/1991), describing spa-
tial movements (forward, back), finding a missing object (“under the table

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182 MATHEMATICS LEARNING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
that’s next to the door”), putting objects away, and finding the way back
home from an excursion. As for many areas of mathematics, verbal inter-
action is important. For example, parental scaffolding of spatial commu-
nication helped both 3- and 4-year-olds perform direction-giving tasks, in
which they had to clarify the directions (disambiguate) by using a second
landmark (“it’s in the bag on the table”), which children are more likely to
do the older they are. Both age groups benefited from directive prompts, but
4-year-olds benefited more quickly than younger children from nondirective
prompts (Plumert and Nichols-Whitehead, 1996). Children who received
no prompts never disambiguated, showing that interaction and feedback
from others is critical to certain spatial communication tasks.
Children as young as 3½ to 5 years of age can build simple but mean-
ingful models of spatial relationships with toys, such as houses, cars, and
trees (Blaut and Stea, 1974), although this ability is limited until about age
6 (Blades et al., 2004). Thus, younger children create relational, geometric
correspondences between elements, which may still vary in scale and per-
spective (Newcombe and Huttenlocher, 2000).
As an example, children might use cutout shapes of a tree, a swing
set, and a sandbox in the playground and lay them out on a felt board as
a simple map. These are good beginnings, but models and maps should
eventually move beyond overly simple iconic picture maps and challenge
children to use geometric correspondences. Four questions arise: direction
(which way?), distance (how far?), location (where?), and identification
(what objects?). To answer these questions, children need to develop a
variety of skills. They must learn to deal with mapping processes of abstrac-
tion, generalization, and symbolization. Some map symbols are icons, such
as an airplane for an airport, but others are more abstract, such as circles
for cities. Children might first build with objects, such as model buildings,
then draw pictures of the objects’ arrangements, then use maps that are
miniaturizations and those that use abstract symbols. Teachers need to con-
sistently help children connect the real-world objects to the representational
meanings of map symbols.
As noted in Chapter 4, equity in the education of spatial thinking is an
important issue. Preschool teachers spend more time with boys than girls
and usually interact with boys in the block, construction, sand play, and
climbing areas and with girls in the dramatic play area (Ebbeck, 1984).
Boys engage in spatial activities more than girls at home, both alone and
with caretakers (Newcombe and Sanderson, 1993). Such differences may
interact with biology to account for early spatial skill advantages for boys
(note that some studies find no gender differences (e.g., Brosnan, 1998,
Chapter 15; Ehrlich, Levine, and Goldin-Meadow, 2006; Jordan et al.,
2006; Levine et al., 1999; Rosser et al., 1984).

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PATHS FOR GEOMETRY, SPATIAL THINKING, AND MEASUREMENT 183
Spatial Visualization and Imagery
Spatial images are internally experienced, holistic representations of
objects that are to a degree isomorphic to their referents (Kosslyn, 1983).
Spatial visualization is understanding and performing imagined movements
of 2-D and 3-D objects. To do this, you need to be able to create a mental
image and manipulate it, showing the close relationship between these two
cognitive abilities.
An image is not a “picture in the head.” It is more abstract, more
malleable, and less crisp than a picture. It is often segmented into parts.
Some images can cause difficulties, especially if they are too inflexible,
vague, or filled with irrelevant details. People’s first images are static. They
can be mentally recreated, and even examined, but not transformed. For
example, one might attempt to think of a group of people around a table.
In contrast, dynamic images can be transformed. For example, you might
mentally “move” the image of one shape (such as a book) to another place
(such as a bookcase, to see if it will fit). In mathematics, you might mentally
move (slide) and rotate an image of one shape to compare that shape to
another one. Piaget argued that most children cannot perform full dynamic
motions of images until the primary grades (Piaget and Inhelder, 1967,
1971). However, preschool children show initial transformational abilities
(Clements et al., 1997a; Del Grande, 1986; Ehrlich et al., 2005; Levine
et al., 1999). With guidance, 4-year-olds and some younger children can
generate strategies for verifying congruence for some tasks, moving from
more primitive strategies, such as edge matching (Beilin, 1984; Beilin, Klein,
and Whitehurst, 1982) to the use of geometric transformations and super-
position. Interventions can improve the spatial skills of young children,
especially when embedded in a story context (Casey, 2005). Computers
are especially helpful, as the screen tools make motions more accessible to
reflection and thus bring them to an explicit level of awareness for children
(Clements and Sarama, 2003; Sarama et al., 1996).
Similarly, other types of imagery can be developed. Manipulative work
with shapes, such as tangrams (a puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes,
called tans, which are put together in different ways to form distinct geo-
metric shapes), pattern blocks, and other shape sets, provides a valuable
foundation (Bishop, 1980). After such explorations, it is useful to engage
children in puzzles in which they see only the outline of several pieces and
have them find ways to fill in that outline with their own set of tangrams.
Similarly, children can begin to develop a foundation for spatial structur-
ing by forming arrays with square tiles and cubes (this is discussed in more
detail in the section on measurement).
Also challenging to spatial visualization and imagery are “snapshot”
activities (Clements, 1999b; Yackel and Wheatley, 1990). Children briefly

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184 MATHEMATICS LEARNING IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
see a simple arrangement of pattern blocks, then try to reproduce it. The
configuration is shown again for a couple of seconds as many times as
necessary. Older children can be shown a line drawing and try to draw
it themselves (Yackel and Wheatley, 1990). This often creates interesting
discussions revolving around “what I saw.”
Spatial visualization and imagery have been positively affected by in-
terventions that emphasize building and composing with 3-D shapes (Casey
et al., in press). Another series of activities described above that develops
imagery is the sequence of tactile-kinesthetic exploration of shapes.
Achievable and Foundational Geometry and Spatial Thinking
Although longitudinal research is needed, extant research provides
guidance about which geometric and spatial experiences are appropriate
for and achievable by young children and will contribute to their math-
ematical development. First, of the mathematics children engage in spon-
taneously in child-centered school activities, the most frequent deals with
shape and pattern. Second, each of the recently developed, research-based
preschool mathematics curricula includes geometric and spatial activities
(Casey, Paugh, and Ballard, 2002; Clements and Sarama, 2004; Ginsburg,
Greenes, and Balfanz, 2003; Klein, Starkey, and Ramirez, 2002), with
some of these featuring such a focus in 40 percent or more of the activities.
Third, pilot-testing has shown that these activities were achievable and
motivating to young children (Casey, Kersh, and Young, 2004; Clements
and Sarama, 2004; Greenes, Ginsburg, and Balfanz, 2004; Starkey, Klein,
and Wakeley, 2004), and formal evaluations have revealed that they con-
tributed to children’s development of both numerical and spatial/geometric
concepts (Casey and Erkut, 2005, in press; Casey et al., in press; Clements
and Sarama, 2007c, in press; Starkey et al., 2004, 2006).
Fourth, previous work has shown that well-designed activities can effec-
tively build geometric and spatial skills and general reasoning abilities (e.g.,
Kamii, Miyakawa, and Kato, 2004). Fifth, results with curricula in Israel
that involved only spatial and geometric activities (Eylon and Rosenfeld,
1990) are remarkably positive. Children gained in geometric and spatial
skills and showed pronounced benefits in the areas of arithmetic and writ-
ing readiness (Razel and Eylon, 1990). Similar results have been found in
the United States (Swaminathan, Clements, and Schrier, 1995). Children are
better prepared for all school tasks when they gain the thinking tools and
representational competence of geometric and spatial sense.
In this section, we describe teaching-learning paths for spatial and
geometric thinking in 2-D and 3-D contexts. For each area outlined below,
children should be engaged in activities that cover a range of difficulty, in-
cluding perceive, say, describe/discuss, and construct (measurement in one,

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PATHS FOR GEOMETRY, SPATIAL THINKING, AND MEASUREMENT 185
two, and three dimensions is described in the following section). Tables
6-1 and 6-2 summarize development of spatial and geometric thinking, as
well as measurement, in two and three dimensions. Ages are grouped in the
same was as in the previous chapter in order to illustrate how children’s
engagement with mathematics should build and develop over the prekin-
dergarten years.
In the tables, children’s competence within each band is described on
the basis of the level of sophistication in their thinking. These levels are
called thinking visually/holistically, thinking about parts, and relating parts
and wholes.
Step 1 (Ages 2 and 3)
2-D and 3-D Objects
Very young children match shapes implicitly in their play. Working at
the visual/holistic level (see Table 6-1), they can describe pictures of objects
of all sorts, using the shape implicitly in their recognition. By age 2 to 3,
they also learn to name shapes, with 2-D shapes being more familiar in
most cultures, beginning with the familiar and symmetric circle and square
and extending to at least prototypical triangles. Although they may name
3-D shapes by the name of one of its faces (calling a cube a square), their
ability to match 2-D to corresponding 2-D (and similar for 3-D) indicates
their intuitive differentiation of 2-D and 3-D shapes.
Children also learn to recognize and name additional shapes, such as
triangles and rectangles—at least in their prototypical forms—and can be-
gin to describe them in their own words. With appropriate knowledge of
number, they can begin to describe these shapes by the number of sides they
have, just starting to learn the concepts and terminology of the thinking
about parts level of geometric thinking.
Spatial Relations
From the first year of life, children develop an implicit ability to move
objects. They also learn relationship language, such as “up” and “down”
and similar vocabulary. They learn to apply that vocabulary in both 3-D
contexts and in 2-D situations, such as the “bottom” of a picture that they
are drawing on a horizontal surface.
Compositions and Decompositions
At the visual/holistic level, children can solve simple puzzles involving
things in the world (e.g., wooden puzzles with insets for each separate ob-

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