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Tangrams 101: Effects of Tangible and Digital Play on Children’s Spatial Reasoning and Parental Spatial Language


Understanding the experiences that shape the development of spatial reasoning is important, as it is related to academic achievement and participation in STEM fields (Newcombe, 2010). Play with puzzles, a common experience for many children, contributes to the development of spatial concepts, through hands-on experience manipulating spatially relevant objects and through the use of spatial language (Levine et al., 2012). However, these types of experiences may be changing as touchscreen devices become more commonly used for play, and there is very limited research that investigates this relationship.

This dissertation addresses the gap by comparing 6-year-olds’ play with tangram puzzles using tangible or digital pieces. Specifically, I investigated whether playing with a tangible tangram set or one of two digital sets with different mechanics (e.g., tapping vs. twisting) would differentially affect children’s spatial reasoning. In addition, I investigated whether parental use of spatial language would differ between tangram sets. Sixty parent-child dyads participated in the study and were randomly assigned to play tangram puzzles using one of three different forms: a traditional, tangible set (Tangible condition), a digital set where they rotated pieces using two-fingers and a twisting motion (Digital-Rotate condition), or a digital set where they rotated pieces by double tapping them (Digital-Tap condition). Children’s spatial reasoning was measured before and after play. In addition, two independent raters coded parents’ use of spatial language during the play session.

The results revealed that children in the Tangible condition showed greater improvement than those in the Digital-Tap condition on items that required diagonal rotation. In addition, parents in the Digital-Tap condition used a higher proportion of deictic words than parents in the Digital-Rotate condition. Additional exploratory analyses examined children’s everyday use of touchscreen devices and revealed that children predominantly use devices by themselves, without the presence of their parents. Together, these findings add to the growing body of research that examines the impact of touchscreen use on child development and bears practical implications for the design and use of touchscreen games in early childhood.

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