Spatial concepts, or spatial relationships, describe an object’s location, important concepts for speech therapy. In grammar-land, we call these words prepositions. Examples include:
Students with language impairments may struggle with understanding spatial concepts, both receptively and expressively. Kids who don’t understand these concepts will struggle to follow directions. It might seem like a child can understand and follow a direction, but they might just be following the routine (hanging coats on a hook, putting books in a basket, and placing their backpack under their chair).
SLPs can include these targets for our young preschoolers and any students who struggle with these skills.
It will come as no surprise that explicit teaching is recommended for spatial concepts and prepositions in speech therapy! The good news is that intervention that teaches spatial concepts to children with intellectual disabilities works and can be maintained over time (Hicks, Rivera, & Wood, 2015).
It might seem like a basic thing to teach, but there are actually a lot of components going on when we are teaching spatial concepts. Our kids need to learn it systematically, both receptively and expressively, and with different objects and in different locations.
The best way to do this is through systematic instruction. Try following these guidelines to make sure you cover all your bases:
Remember to teach one thing at a time. You’re not teaching noun identification or labelling. Make sure you are using pictures, props, and activities that are already in your student’s receptive and expressive repertoire.
Just like we are teaching one skill at a time, we also need to teach one concept at a time. Really nail down a concept before you add in another. It might seem slower, but trust me, you want to cement the skills if you want them to be maintained long term!
Using two objects (for example a toy and a table), teach the concept. Put the toy under the table and say “This is under,” or “The toy is under.”
Then, put the toy on top and say “This is not under.” Don’t worry about teaching “on top” or “over.” If you start with opposites, you are actually teaching two spatial concepts at one time!
Now, it’s possible you will have some students who can maybe handle two spatial concepts at a time and you can work by teaching opposites. As the awesome, fully competent SLP I know you are, of course you’re taking individual differences into account. But don’t be afraid of homing in that focus and just teach one thing at a time.
Ok, you’ve repeatedly modeled your spatial concept. It’s time to start giving the student a chance to demonstrate what you have taught.
Put the toy under the table and ask, “Where is the toy?” The correct answer is under! (You might get a point and a “there,” but that’s what we’re here for! You can model the right answer or you can give two choices to help guide the learning process).
Now we’re going to check for receptive understanding. Put the toy in front of the child and give a direction, “Put the toy under the table.”
Now it’s the students turn to boss you around! For this activity, you can set up a scavenger hunt and put a few items under a few other items in your therapy space. Then, the student has to tell you where to find the item (“it’s under the table.”) You can make a fun checklist with your items listed. Just remember to focus on one concept at a time.
Finally, you can collect some of your student’s very favorite treat or toys to position strategically around the room so they have to ask for them using their newly learned spatial concept. (“Can I have the cookies under the clock?”)
Now, once your student has great accuracy with your targeted spatial concept, move on to the next one. After they have mastered multiple concepts, you can finally mix it up during a scavenger hunt or requesting activity.
My themed language therapy units all include an on-topic spatial concepts worksheets for easy, no-prep practice!
If you student is working on one specific spatial concept, ask the student to find the squirrel demonstrating your target preposition. You can even practice saying non-examples (“The squirrel is not under the tree”).
If your students have mastered all of these prepositions one at a time, then you can use these worksheets to practice all of the concepts together.
Of course, my younger students love to color in these spatial concepts worksheets as they work on it or while I’m focusing on another student for a minute! Fun, simple, engaging, and thematic!
I included a sentence starter to encourage expansions and longer utterances for your students who need it.
You can target spatial concepts one at a time or all together in speech therapy with toys to make it fun! My favorite thing about using the thematic units I described above is that it can provide focus for your lesson planning. Make the decision-making easier on yourself by planning a theme and working around it!
Here are some suggestions of objects you can use
Highly motivating ideas for any time:
All of these items can be place around your room, around tables, chairs, shelves, books, desks, etc. Feel free to take it out of the therapy room and move the objects around the classroom, school, or playground!
I hope you feel more confident and ready to take on spatial concepts in speech therapy! Understanding and being able to express these concepts are so important for our kids! Keep up the awesome work!
Hicks, S., Rivera, C, & Wood, C. (2015). Using direct instruction: Teaching preposition use to students with intellectual disability. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. https://doi.org/10.1044/2015_LSHSS-14-0088