What is Body Space Awareness in Childhood?
Body space awareness in childhood is the ability to know where your body is, compared to other people and objects.
Body space awareness, also called spatial awareness, is following the social and cultural norms with respect to the body space of others. The ability to pay attention to social cues from others in terms of body space can differ by gender and age.
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, spatial reasoning, and the understanding of social norms.
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Symptoms of Body Space Awareness Issues in Children
- Standing too close to others: your child is not realizing appropriate social space or social distance
- Not reading social cues: your child is not noticing if kids inch away or recoil
- Playing too rough with peers: your child is engaging in rough play, not understanding the impact of their body on others’ physical safety
- Close talking: your child is in someone else’s space and is unaware of the environment and social cues being sent
- Giving too many hugs: your child is overbearing in terms of physical affection
- Seeming unaware: your child is not understanding peers’ reactions
- Acting loud and boisterous: your child is like a “bull in a china shop”
- Bumping into everything: your child is all over the place, knocking things over and making messes
- Accidentally breaking toys or school supplies: your child frequently breaks items by accident
- Using pressure that is too light or too hard: your child struggles with writing, does not make legible marks or tears the paper
- Appearing clumsy and awkward: your child seems to lack body fluidity or graceful movement
Causes of Body Space Awareness Issues
Here are a few causes for body space awareness challenges.
- Poor 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 can impact 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.
- Poor proprioception may impact the awareness of where your body is in space. It affects a child’s spatial relationships as well as their ability to determine the amount of pressure they exert physically. 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 a poor understanding of body space and physical pressure. This may be a challenge for children with ASD or ADHD.
- Poor motor planning can cause a child to not predict where their body will be in space. This ability may impact eye-hand coordination, achievement in sports, or planning the process to do a Rubix cube or build with Legos. This challenge could be related to a developmental motor coordination disorder.
- Poor sensory processing can cause problems with spatial awareness. Some children have sensory seeking tendencies. They may often bump into people or jump around impulsively, appearing as if driven by a motor. These tendencies are associated with ADHD, ASD, and sometimes anxiety.
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
Provided by Occupational Therapist Joni Hjalmquist
- Read ‘Personal Space Camp’ 
- Watch videos and 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
- Use a hula hoop to introduce the size of their personal space bubble
- 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. Concerns would be evident if your child is frequently getting in trouble for breaking things or accidentally hurting people due to poor spatial awareness.
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: problems may come up in running, walking, catching or kicking a ball, and clumsiness
- Depth perception: problems may occur with judging how far away something is
- Learning problems: problems here could be related to challenges with reading or writing
- Vision challenges: problems with spatial skills may be related to difficulties with eyesight
References for Body Space Awareness
 Cook, Julia (2012). Personal space camp.
Resources for Body Space Awareness
Growing hands-on kids (2017): Activities to help your child understand where is body is in space.
Giler, Janet Z. (2000). Socially ADDept: A manual for parents of children with ADHD and / or learning disabilities.
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.
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy, & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Smith, Bryan & Griffen, Lisa M. (2016). What were you thinking? Learning to control your impulses (Executive function).
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