Return to Visualization Activities

Overview and Information


Overview: Visual Thinking Activities Project

Visual Thinking Activities Database

Outline for this page: Background | The Goal of this Project | Q & A | General Guidelines for Activities in the Database | Comments on Terminology and Purpose | Link to the Database Itself


Visual thinking involves mental processes of representing, analyzing, and drawing inferences about 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional objects and spatial relations. (I use the terms ‘visual thinking’ and ‘visualization’ interchangeably.*)

Visual thinking in 2- and 3-dimensions has been shown to have numerous benefits in sch ool and outside of school.  See my Why are Visual Thinking Skills Valuable? page for links to research. While some students may have more ‘natural’ visual thinking skills, all students can grow their visualization abilities, regardless of innate abilities.  Another study, is a Meta-Analysis on the Effects of Spatial Training on Mathematics Performance. 

Often students are not provided activities (which are often enjoyed by students!) to build their visualization skills.  This project addresses this need to make visual thinking activities readily available for teachers, parents, and students.

The Goal of this Project

The Goal: Compile an annotated list of high quality learning activities, in a usable form, that can be used by students to grow their visual thinking skills.

The database will be compiled and maintained by Jim Olsen as a Google sheet. It will be made available, free of charge, on the internet.

Q & A

Q: What types of activities will be included in the database?

A: Examples include:

    • Online game
    • Hands-on activity
    • Puzzle
    • Building activity
    • iPad app
    • Commercially-available game (e.g., Quarto), but these may be down-played since they are not free.

Q: What are the visualization abilities we want to develop?

A: The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of visualization and reasoning abilities which we want to develop through the learning activities:

    1. Think about multiple representations,
    2. Manipulate (physically and mentally) the object or components,
    3. Analyze – break it into parts (decompose),
    4. Compose (synthesize),
    5. Describing the structure,
    6. Consider properties of the components,
    7. Consider relationships among components,
    8. Develop strategies to deal with the components and complete the task,
    9. Planning,
    10. Reasoning, to draw conclusions,
    11. General executive function.

Q: Does the learning activity need to relate directly to a school learning standard?

A: No. Many will, but visual thinking learning activities enhance general reasoning skills. They havie an indirect relationship to school objectives, but not a direct, immediate link to school learning standards.

Q: Are the activities keyed to a grade or age level?

A: No.  While some activities may generally be more appropriate for certain grade levels, the visual thinking activities generally do not require prerequisite knowledge and the growth of visualization skills is a lifetime endeavor. I leave it up to the teacher/parent/student to decide which activities to engage with.

Q: How can I contribute to the database?

A: If you have an idea for a visual thinking activity, email JR-Olsen ‘at’

General Guidelines for Activities in the Database

The learning activities should:

    1. Have some goal, something to achieve (We may also include some purely exploratory tools.).
    2. Be engaging for the student.
    3. Be free or require materials that can reasonably be home made.
    4. Be in usable form. (Teachers and students can use it ‘right out of the box.’)

*Comments on Terminology and Purpose

I use the terms ‘visual thinking’ and ‘visualization’ interchangeably. My definition includes both two and three-dimensional reasoning. We could use the term ‘spatial visualization,’ but that might imply 3D (not 2D) reasoning.  While some academics limit the term visual thinking to particular academic subjects, I’m using it in a very broad sense.  I believe that visual reasoning skills are beneficial in all curriculum areas from art to chemistry to spelling. Visualization skills are useful in everyday life from designing a garden to building a swing set to organizing a pantry.  I have a predilection for math, partly out of personal interest, but mainly because it is the queen and handmaiden of all academic disciplines and if students have strong mathematical abilities, then many doors are open to them, in terms of academic study and careers.

The Visual Thinking Activities Database here  (which is inside

Page created by Jim Olsen