Thinking Spatially About Data

A Developing Framework to Understand Children’s Spatial Reasoning in Data Physicalization

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Encoding intangible data variables with visual, spatial, and physical properties demands a high level of spatial reasoning. The ability to reason spatially is widely deemed critical to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) learning. While much research has explored the relationship between learning with visualizations and spatial skills development, little is known about how children use their spatial reasoning in constructing tangible visualizations. This work-in-progress investigates how data physicalization activities, organized within a Design module in primary classrooms in the Netherlands, provide a window to understanding children’s spatial reasoning about data. Based on preliminary analysis, we identify six indicators of children’s spatial reasoning as observed in their constructing processes and artifacts. Most children in the study used tangible materials of varied sizes, curated meaningful spatial arrangements, and employed different unitizing methods to encode numerical data with spatial properties. Some children adjusted the sizes, units, or spatial arrangement to refine their tangible visualizations, considered the pros and cons of two- and three-dimensional forms of presentation, and made creative use of spatial shapes. In summary, this case study offers insights into children’s use of spatial reasoning in data physicalization creation and practical implications for situating data physicalization activities in formal learning environments.