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Infants Early Number Sense Is Vital To Learning Math

Update Date: Oct 23, 2013 01:03 PM EDT

An early stage of number sense during infancy may determine whether a child will go above and beyond in their mathematical capabilities in preschool according to a new study. 

"When children are acquiring the symbolic system for representing numbers and learning about math in school, they're tapping into this primitive number sense," lead researcher, Elizabeth Brannon, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience, said in a news release. "It's the conceptual building block upon which mathematical ability is built."

Brannon said that babies have a basic understanding of numbers which is called a, "primitive number sense". 

This understanding means that babies are able to tell the difference between a set of small or large numbers without verbally counting. Duke University uses the example of visually telling apart how a group of 15 strawberries is more than six oranges to explain how the infant number sense works.  

Researchers observed 46 6-month-old babies for their study. Researches put each baby in front of two screens in which one of them showed the same number of dots, only they changed in size and position and the other one switched in number quantity such as eight and 16 dots.

Researchers paid attention to the baby's attention to change. They saw that the babies who noticed a change between numerical values looked longer at the screen which changed in numbers.

The same children were observed once again for the study at the age of three and a half. The children were to look at a two displays of dots and were asked to identify which one had more dots without counting them. They also took a standardized math test meant for pre-schoolers and an IQ test.  

Lastly, researchers gave the children an activity to determine what was the largest number word they could understand.

"We found that infants with higher preference scores for looking at the numerically changing screen had better primitive number sense three years later compared to those infants with lower scores," Starr said. "Likewise, children with higher scores in infancy performed better on standardized math tests."

Researchers believe that an early number sense is vital to comprehending future math principles and equations.

"Our study shows that infant number sense is a predictor of symbolic math," Brannon said. "We believe that when children learn the meaning of number words and symbols, they're likely mapping those meanings onto pre-verbal representations of number that they already have in infancy."

With this finding, researchers hope that an introductory to math similar to this study can be provided to young children who have trouble learning math.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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