Fostering Spatial Thinking Through Games

05-18-2012 01:05 AM
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Those of us in the fields of geography, education, and GIS can probably name numerous games and activities that we are attracted to simply because there is “something spatial” about them. Some of them may have to do with wayfinding, others with angles and directions, patterns and shapes, distances, adjacency, groups, or may rely on geographic content knowledge. In Monopoly, I always sought houses and hotels on Oriental, Vermont, and Connecticut Avenues simply because I liked where they were positioned on the board. I wasn’t deterred by the fact that they were on the “cheap” side of the board (consequently, I seldom won). I enjoy playing Blokus and putting together jigsaw puzzles because of their spatial aspects (although I never could get the top pieces in the 3-D globe puzzle I helped put together this past New Year’s Eve).3d_puzzle_globe_sm.jpg

Many of us were fond of the blue category in the original Trivial Pursuit game, which was geography (and were subsequently embarrassed whenever we missed a geography question!). I loved the angles and positions in early video games such as Pong and Galaga, and was frustrated by Asteroids largely because it seemed that the scale was wrong. Millions of people play Spatial IQ, Cross Fingers, Glass Tower, and other spatially oriented games on their computers and smartphones daily. And outside, while I found the directions to my one and only road rally game too complicated, I greatly enjoy confluence hunting, geocaching, and earthcaching.

A small but growing community of researchers and instructors is exploring how the playing of games can foster spatial thinking, content knowledge, and skills important in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, geography, and GIS. My colleague Dr. Diana Stuart Sinton teaches a class called the “Foundations of Spatial Thinking” as part of the Learning Spatially at the University of Redlands program. One of her assignments to the students is to categorize games and activities in terms of the spatial strategies used, and how the strategies may be relevant for STEM learning. Dr. Ola Ahlqvist has an NSF cyber learning grant to develop and study learning with GeoGames. National Geographic supported Reach The World’s development of geo-games. The world of geospatially-oriented games on smartphones and computers is poised for great expansion, with the inclusion of real spaces and places in these games posing intriguing potential for teaching, learning, and research. Imagine any game scenario not in an imaginary world but taking place using imagery and maps of Davenport, or Shreveport, or anywhere.

What are your favorite spatially-oriented games? How might you use games to foster spatial thinking and learning?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager
About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.