Spatial Visualization

I’m using “spatial visualization” as a parent-friendly term, though really, the concept is more clearly divided in science between object rotation and observer perspective shifting. The first is the ability to mentally rotate a 2-D or 3-D object and see where it fits – this is your ability to find an upside-down jigsaw puzzle piece on the table and know it fits in the spot you have in mind. It also covers the mental folding necessary to see how a flat sheet of cardboard can be folded into a box, and the mental slicing to know that two slices of a sphere will be (most likely) two differently sized circles. The second is the ability to stand at the corner of a house and mentally place yourself in front of the house and know what that will look like. At least, those tasks have been studied for a long time and there are clear differences in reaction time between those two fields.

In baking, though, we know there’s also a mental division of volume that often happens, which I haven’t seen studied. This would be, say, knowing that your banana bread batter, in a mixing bowl, is going to need more than one loaf pan, or that you have divided the challah dough into three even sections for braiding.

There are also a lot of baking tasks that use several of these visualization tasks at once – like when you create a palmier and have to imagine the shape the finished, folded pastry will take. You’re generally working from the top, but have to shift your perspective to the side in order to see the heart forming. You also need to use object rotation to see how the folding will create the heart. Then, you need to estimate how many cookie sheets these sliced palmiers are going to need, and how much spacing is required for their expected transformation in the oven.

If you’re creating a checkerboard cake, you need to be able to visualize what construction (top-down) will allow a checkerboard perspective once sliced – and how many cakes you’ll need to achieve that.

As any baker knows, though, these are skills that experienced bakers are better at than inexperienced bakers. It’s why Grandma’s cookie recipe doesn’t include spacing on a cookie sheet – she knows they’ll spread and end up about 1″ apart – while something from America’s Test Kitchen will give explicit directions on both the size of the dough ball and the spacing on the sheet. Your skills have been developed through through instruction (imagine the difference in Grandma’s gestures between shaping a snickerdoodle-sized ball of dough and a bread boule) and sustained practice, and they transfer to some other areas too. I can imagine how to fold a single sheet of puff pastry into a three-leaved shamrock, and I can imagine how the pages of a 8-page booklet need to be laid out to fold in half and be in order. We know though scientific literature and our own experience that we can improve these spatial skills, whether or not someone is “naturally gifted” at them.

So, how do we do that?

First, know that preschoolers/kindergartners (ages 3-5) go through a really rapid explosion of spatial awareness. Three year olds are going to be pretty bad at imagining how things will look when they’re folded or turned or sliced, while five year olds will be mostly accurate. There are some limits on how we can study the under-3 crowd, due to other areas of development, but we can extrapolate that they will also be bad at imagining. It’s partly due to life experience – non-mobile babies don’t understand perspective shifting because they actually can’t shift their perspective – so giving opportunities to fold and turn and slice is going to help. Physical manipulation of objects builds that experience, so before you do a checkerboard cookie, you can use some math manipulatives to show how to split the dough and reassemble. Folded pastry can be practiced with a sheet of parchment paper, starting with the adult doing the initial fold and the child unfolding and refolding until they have the sequencing down. Braiding can be practiced with dish towels clipped together with a bag clip.

Let your child braid, unbraid, rebraid, clip, unclip – whatever they need to figure out how the pieces fit together!

Second, remember that individuals, whether in preschool or college, need experience and practice to develop these skills. Bake often, and incorporate spatial language. Spatial language can be as simple as using prepositions: “Put this dough beside that dough.” Or it can include slightly more complex mathematical terms: “Now we need three dough snakes to be parallel to each other.” Before you go ahead and braid the challah, you can ask, “What will the dough look like if I move this snake on the left to the middle, then that snake on the right to the middle? What shapes will we be able to see?” This challenge to imagine the movement, followed by the action, allows for a natural scientific experiment (hypothesis, test, comparison of result) and builds the body of spatial manipulation experience the child can draw from. You can also work on the mental division of volume by asking, “What size pan do we need? Will it be big enough or do we need two?” Try to get the child to justify their answer, whether or not it’s right, to build the explicit knowledge and language, not just the intuition.

Third, gesturing has been shown to have a huge impact on visualization, so break out your inner Italian nonna/sign language teacher, and use those hands. Pretend you’re kneading – yes, right now – and look at the scoop/flip/push movement of your hands. You can move the child’s hands as you teach them to knead, then stand side-by-side using those gestures, then finally step back once they have the movement down, right? If you’re trying to explain how to fold the pastry into a heart, you can use similar gestural clues – palms up, spreading to show the length of the pastry, one wrist then the other flipped in to the center, then tilted up at a 45 degree angle to resemble a heart. If you’re using the word “parallel,” use your hands to draw parallel lines. Even early-toddler recipes that call for filling a measuring cup with flour or water can use better gestures – instead of pointing to one spot on the cup and saying “stop here,” use a hand to show how the water will “fill fill fill” until you “stop!” and tap at the desired measurement.

Spread, rotate, flip – these concepts make a lot more sense with gestures!

Lastly, let go of perfection and be willing to experiment with toddler/preschooler ideas. If they can’t visualize how a palmier will look from the side, lift the cutting board to change their perspective, or go ahead and cut it now. Cut it even if that means two short, fat, uneven challahs instead of a nicely shaped braid, because the purpose of baking with children is never to achieve perfection! If anyone questions it, tell them that today, your kitchen was a classroom focusing on how the cross-section of a cylinder is a circle.

Recipes that focus on spatial visualization:

  • Cinnamon-Red Sugar Palmiers
  • Pesto Shamrock Palmiers
  • Challah
  • Christmas Pinwheels
  • Chocolate-Raspberry Checkerboard Cookies
  • Buche de Noel

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