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Moving and SensingBody Space Awareness

Is Your Child Standing Too Close?

Four girls standing closely together.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 21 Apr 2022
Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Body Space Awareness in Childhood?

Body Space Awareness (also called spatial awareness) in childhood is being able to know where your body is, compared to other people and objects. 

Abilities of body space awareness include being able to follow social and cultural norms to respect the body space of others. 

Of course, this skill depends somewhat on a child’s age, and there may be baseline gender differences between females and males. Spatial Awareness is an important concept in child development. It provides insight into cognitive processes within the brain, such as the development of spatial skills and spatial reasoning. 

Symptoms of Body Space Awareness Issues in Children

  • Standing too close to others: does not realize appropriate social space 
  • Not reading social cues: does not notice if kids inch away or recoil
  • Too rough with peers: rough play and not seeing the impact
  • Close talking: being in someone else’s space
  • Too many hugs: not reading cues about physical affection
  • Seems unaware: not understanding peers’ reactions 
  • Loud and boisterous: young children are generally this way, but sometimes this is extreme, like a “bull in a china shop”
  • Bumps into everything: all over the place
  • Accidentally breaks toys or school supplies: items are broken without the child meaning it to happen
  • Pressure is too light or too hard: with fine motor skills (writing), does not make legible marks or tears the paper with pressure
  • Appears clumsy and awkward: seems to lack body fluidity or graceful movement

Causes of Body Space Awareness Issues

Here are a few causes for when a toddler, child, or teen is like a bull in a china shop.

ADHD

  • Poor Sustained Attention: Sometimes sustained attention could be the problem. A child may have trouble with personal space because they rarely listen to and follow the rules of a game. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Poor Social Communication: Involves reading nonverbal cues like personal space, facial expression and body language. Having the ability to read nonverbal cues helps with body space awareness. If you miss out on nonverbal cues you may really struggle with spatial awareness.

Sensory Issues

  • Poor Proprioception: Is the awareness of where your body is in space, as informed by the muscles and joints. It affects a child’s ability to determine the amount of pressure he or she exerts. Children may stand too close to a peer in front of them because they are not sensing where their body is in relation to others. They may give a hug that is too tight due to poor understanding of body space and physical pressure. This awareness may be a challenge for children with ASD or ADHD. 
  • Sensory Processing: Some children have sensory seeking tendencies. These tendencies are associated with ADHD, ASD, and sometimes anxiety. They may often bump into people or jump around impulsively, appearing as if driven by a motor.

What to Do about Body Space Awareness Issues

If your child is having a hard time being aware of their personal space, some challenges in everyday life likely need some attention or support. Here are some ideas to help your child.

Suggestions to Help Increase Your Child’s Body Space Awareness

  • Read ‘Personal Space Camp’ [1]
  • Watch videos/look at pictures. Ask your child to identify the emotions in the story characters
  • Practice observing social cues. Look at eyebrows, mouth, eyes, hands, body posture, tone and volume of voice
  • Encourage the child to look for clues that a peer is uncomfortable, such as taking a step back or showing an annoyed facial expression
  • Draw a target symbol. Label different people in a child’s life and how each ‘level’ of relationship is different. Start with putting family in the circle in the center. Then, put friends in the second circle and acquaintances in the third. End with putting strangers in the final outside circle. Discuss the different ways to interact with each level, including how much personal space is okay
  • Have the child climb through hula hoops in different directions without touching them
  • To introduce a visual for the size of a personal bubble use a hula hoop
  • Do yoga to help build body space awareness
  • Give a child a sticker and have them place it on a part of their body without looking (e.g., nose, forehead, knee)
  • Practice heavy work activities, such as wheelbarrow walks, wall push-ups, and jumping. These activities give input to the body to help feel where they are in space

When to Seek Help for Body Space Awareness Issues

If you have tried many home strategies from above and continue to have concerns, you may wish to seek help. 

Find a professional: An evaluation may be necessary if the problems are significant. Therapy may help your child learn how to keep the right amount of personal space. Therapy may also help your child learn to understand nonverbal social cues. Examples of professionals who could help are listed below.

Types of Professionals for Body Space Awareness

If your child is struggling to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Physical Therapist: to assess and treat gross motor coordination; to help with large muscle groups and movement
  • Occupational Therapist: to assess and treat fine motor skills and sensory integration needs
  • Psychologist: to consider different perspectives on the awareness of spatial awareness; poor spatial awareness may be related to visual spatial problems, attention, or sensory, social, or motor problems.

Similar Conditions to Body Space Awareness Issues

  • Motor Coordination: running, walking; catching or kicking a ball, clumsiness
  • Depth Perception: judging how far away something is
  • Learning Problems: could be related to challenges with reading or writing
  • Vision Challenges: some difficulties with visual spatial may be due to eye problems

Resources on Body Space Awareness

[1] Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp.

Growing hands on kids (2017): Activities to help your child understand where is body is in space.  

Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Baker, Jed. (2001). The social skills picture book: Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism.

Gray, Carol & Attwood, Tony (2010). The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and their Peers.

Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.

Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).

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