Background: Regular physical exercise plays an integral part in the psychomotor and psychosocial development of children and adolescents, with complex motor and cognitive processes closely linked. Spatial abilities, one aspect of cognitive functioning start to evolve from earliest childhood and reach adult-like levels by early adolescence. As they have been associated with good spatial orientation, wayfinding, map-reading skills, problem solving or analyzing spatial information, these skills facilitate independence and autonomy while growing up. Despite promising results, only few studies investigate this relation between physical exercise and spatial abilities. To use this benefit and develop purposive physical exercise interventions, it is essential to summarize the current evidence.
Objectives: This literature review aims to systematically summarize findings regarding the impact of physical exercise interventions on spatial abilities in healthy children and adolescents and identify knowledge gaps.
Methods: A systematic search of the literature according to the PRISMA guidelines was conducted on the databases Pubmed, Web of Science, Cochrane Library, SportDiscus, and PsycInfo from their inception date till March 2021. Additionally, Google Scholar and refence lists of relevant publications were searched. A descriptive analysis of results was conducted.
Results: The literature search identified a total of N = 1,215 records, 11 of which met the inclusion criteria and were analyzed in this review. A total of 621 participants aged 4 to 15 years participated in the studies. Exercise interventions included sport-specific activities, motor-coordinative exercises, high-intensity functional training or spatial orientation/navigation training. Five studies evaluated training effects on mental rotation performance (i.e., Mental Rotation Test), four studies investigated visuo-spatial working memory function/spatial memory (i.e., Corsi Block Test, Virtual Reality Morris Water Maze) and two studies tested spatial orientation capacity (i.e., Orientation-Running Test). Overall, results show a potential for improvement of spatial abilities through physical exercise interventions. However, keeping the diversity of study designs, populations and outcomes in mind, findings need to be interpreted with care.
Conclusions: Despite growing interest on the effects of physical exercise interventions on spatial abilities and promising findings of available studies, evidence to date remains limited. Future research is needed to establish how spatial ability development of healthy children and adolescents can be positively supported.