Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Empty Space Club

By: Dr. Linda Carson

It’s back to school time and my thoughts turn to young children adjusting to new environments, routines, and faces. It can be exhilarating for some and frightening for others. Even play time can test a child’s enthusiasm and eagerness.

Almost all young children love to move around, and given a little bit of open space, moving may change to galloping or running. We have all watched and winced as our youngest children collide with coffee tables, chairs, playground equipment, and of course, other children. Have you ever wondered how children actually learn to control their movements, or how we can help them become more skillful movers?

Space awareness has complex components, but in simple terms for home practice, space awareness is:

Knowledge about space, and how I use and manage my body in relation to objects, obstacles, and other movers.

For decades, preschool children have been introduced to sitting or standing on a carpet to define the place (or space) that belongs to them. And many teachers have children return to their place after doing an activity somewhere else. Most teachers call this place “personal” space or “self” space.

But space awareness is more than a spot on the floor or carpet. Young children need lots of practice time for learning about locations in space (up-down, high-low, on top-below, over-under, in front of front –behind, etc.) and judging distance. From a child’s perspective, if my self-space is how much room my body needs in my “place,” what happens when I start moving around the room or play yard in something called shared space? It can be a bit challenging but we can help children learn that they take their self-space with them into shared space…and so does everyone else! And now, the familiar safe and self-regulated movements become VERY challenging when other things or other children are included.

So how can we help children avoid collisions while having fun learning about space relationships when playing games, moving to music, pretending, and simply exploring? One way is to use props like a hula hoop to not only be the child’s “place” on the floor, but to help your child actually pick up self-space and see that it moves around too. This also helps children “see” the self-space of others while practicing. Another helpful strategy for applying concepts to a young child’s awareness of space is to use the terms empty and full to your advantage. Using containers or cups with water, sand, cereal or other items in them help demonstrate the difference between empty or full. This brings with it lots of opportunity for dialog and discussion…even math and measuring concepts. If children understand empty and full, and have practiced with hands on props and desktop visuals, they have the foundation necessary to apply the vocabulary and the concepts to their own movements and their relationships with obstacles and other people.

Choosy Kids has a song about moving only into empty spaces. It encourages children to look for and move into spaces that are empty and not filled with another person. The song even empowers children by welcoming them into the Empty Space Club if they can move and play without bumping into anything or anyone. As the song plays, do the movements with your child that are asked for during the song and during the chorus (designed as a rest period). Make up movements that you can do together, for example:

"I Love (hands over heart or draw a heart on chest) 
Being in the Choosy Kids Club   (hand sign for C)
I Love (hands over heart or draw a heart on chest) 
Being in the Empty Space Club (make up a movement for empty, i.e. point to the floor and move your hand in a circle)"

Download your very own Empty Space Club membership card and present it to your child if he or she is intentionally looking for those empty spaces instead of bumping into unsuspecting siblings or friends!
Other fun things that you can do at home to practice space awareness include using available toys and props around the house to review important location words, for example:

Can you put your toy under your chair?
Can you put your toy behind the vacuum cleaner?
Can you put your toy on top of your bed?
Can you put your toy in front of your foot? Is it near to you or far away? 
Can you put your toy far away from you?
Which is near and which is far? Toaster and bed? Door and toothbrush? 
Standing in your personal space, can you put your hands up high
Can you put one hand low?
Can you put one hand high and one hand low?

Make up games that involve judgments of space like tossing or rolling a ball over a line, into a hoop or into a laundry basket.

Design an obstacle course with pillows and stuffed animals as obstacles in shared space. The child must find only empty spaces to move, hop, gallop, jump, etc. while avoiding each obstacle.

Practicing space concepts in a fun and playful way lays a foundation for the development of self-regulation, as well as a respect for the personal space of that other children and adults.

What have you tried to do to help your child learn about personal and shared space?

About the Author: Linda Carson, Ed. D, is the founder and CEO of Choosy Kids, LLC, and the Ware Distinguished Professor Emerita at West Virginia University. An award winning, nationally recognized expert, Dr. Carson has devoted her career to promoting healthy preferences for young children and the adults who make decisions on their behalf. Click here to learn more about Linda.


  1. A good article! My little one is a bit beyond preschool but I remember hoping she'd learn all she needed to socially as well as academically. Come to think of it, I still hope this for her!!

    1. We all hope that for our children. How is she doing?!

  2. Very informative article. I'm going to have to try that song out with my son. He loves music so it's a great way for him to learn new concepts.

    1. Thank you. Let us know what your son thinks of the song!

  3. These are such great ideas. I haven't worked on space concepts with the twins yet, but we really need to. They would love having the hula hoop, and putting the toys in different spaces.Great song!!!

    1. Go find hula hoops now! I saw some on sale at toys r us yesterday. End of season sale!!

  4. Ahhhh this is something I probably should start working on with my daughter! She tends to think all space is her space.... Not the best thing :-/

    1. It is a tough concept for kids to grasp. It is just like when we are on the playground and just because we used a particular swing she thinks that swing is only for her use now. Womp womp...lesson to teach and learn!

  5. I am loving this! I have a two year old little boy and he sure does love to run around and play! He is always bumping into things! He is going to be apart of the The Empty Space Club! :D

    1. Fantastic!! We hope that this helps him find his own space :)

  6. Awesome and informative. Thanks for the ideas!

  7. I love this, songs are such a great way to teach kids of all ages!

  8. These are some helpful ideas for teaching about different aspects of space - from personal-space to prepositions!


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