Study: Child’s Math Abilities Starts at Infancy

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A baby’s sense of numbers at the age of 6 months predicts how good that child will be at math at the age of 3, new research finds.

In the study, in which researchers looked at infants’ “primitive number sense,” or how well they can differentiate between groups of different numbers of items, suggests this skill is a building block for future math learning.

“It may explain some of the differences in how easy children find it to learn,” said study researcher Elizabeth Brannon, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina.

As easy as 1 … 2 … 3 …

From as early as the first two days of life, newborns have an approximate sense of numbers, researchers have found. If shown a grid of eight dots repeatedly, for example, babies will look longer than when they’re suddenly shown a grid of 16 dots, even if the grid is otherwise identical. Because babies can’t talk, infant cognition researchers rely on the fact that infants look at new, unfamiliar objects longer than old ones to determine what babies can perceive. If they looked the same amount of time at a 16-dot grid as a series of eight-dot grids, it would suggest the infants couldn’t tell the difference between the two.

Brannon and her colleagues developed a type of baby math test that allows researchers to “score” individual infants on their primitive number sense. In this test, the baby is shown two screens simultaneously. A series of black-and-white patterns made of dots flash across both screens. The difference is that one screen always shows patterns made of the same number of dots — the size of the dots and the arrangement are all that change. On the other side, the number of dots making up the patterns changes, too.