Spatial orientation

Spatial orientation
Forwards, backwards, over, under . . . It’s not easy making sense of spatial orientation terms!

For young children, spatial orientation terms such as forwards, backwards, over, and under aren’t easy to understand. But they gradually get the hang of these words by hearing them in different contexts.

What are spatial orientation terms?

Spatial orientation terms are words used to situate people and objects in relation to each other in space. Examples include forwards and backwards, above and below, and up and down.

Initially, children understand these words in relation to themselves (e.g., “The book is next to me”). Eventually, they learn how these same words can be used to describe objects in relation to each other (e.g., “The book is next to the little truck”).

Around 1½ to 2 years of age, children begin to understand the simplest spatial orientation terms, such as in, up, down, on, and under.

At 3 to 5 years of age, they can understand and use several spatial orientation words. They have an increasingly firm grasp of more complex terms such as forwards, backwards, and between. The terms left and right, meanwhile, are generally mastered around age 5 to 7.

When a child begins to understand spatial orientation terms, it indicates that they’re getting comfortable with more abstract words. Understanding these terms helps children follow day-to-day instructions and, eventually, their routine at school.

Activities to help your child understand spatial orientation terms

You can improve your child’s understanding of spatial orientation terms by giving them concrete examples of how to use these words in everyday life. Playing games is also a great way to help them learn. Here are some activities to do with your little one based on their age.

Age 1 to 3

  • Ask your child to place various objects in a box.
  • Ask them to throw their ball up in the air.
  • Ask them to stick magnets on the fridge, up high or down low.
  • Ask them to place a toy on or under a piece of furniture.
  • Ask them to go hide under the table, under a blanket, etc.
  • Fashion a mini obstacle course and describe what your child is doing as they go through it: “You’re crawling under the chair,” “You’re walking on the cushions,” etc.
  • Build a tower of blocks with your child and say what you’re doing out loud: “I’m putting the red block on top of the blue block,” etc.

Age 3 to 5

  • Continue to use spatial orientation terms regularly when talking to your child. You can describe the things they do throughout the day and during playtime. In the car, for example, you can say: “You’re sitting behind me.”
  • Compare two opposing concepts: “The cat is on top of your bed” versus “The doll is under your bed.”
  • While your child is doodling, ask them to draw an object next to, under, near, or far away from another object in their picture.
  • At mealtime, explain where to put the utensils. For example: “Put the spoon beside the knife.”
  • Play detective with your child by asking them to find an object you’ve hidden. You can give them instructions such as, “Look for the plushie under the bed.”
  • Give your child instructions while they play with toy animals or figurines. For example: “Take the pig up to the barn” or “Hide the horse behind the sheep.”
  • At story time, read your little one books about opposites. These books often feature spatial orientation terms. You can borrow some from your local library.
  • Practise spatial orientation terms when playing building games. For example, ask your child to place a block “in between” the blue and red blocks in their creation.


Things to keep in mind

  • Children begin to understand spatial orientation terms around age 1½ to 2. They get the hang of these words by hearing them in different contexts.
  • Knowing spatial orientation terms helps children understand instructions.
  • Spatial orientation words are common in everyday speech, so they’re easy to incorporate into activities and games with your child.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., speech-language pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2019



Sources and references

For parents

  • Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 184 pp.
  • Bouchard, Caroline. Le développement global de l’enfant de 0 à 6 ans en contextes éducatifs. Quebec City, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2019, 516 pp.

For kids

  • Dufresne, Rhéa, and Josée Masse. Dessus dessous. Montreal, Éditions de l’Isatis, 2016, 28 pp.