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November 7, 2013

Math skills are evident in babies

A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many researchers have long suspected: Signs of mathematical prowess are apparent as early as infancy.

Parents are always looking for early signs of ability in their children: a boy who was able to ride a bike at age 3 or an 18-month old girl who surpassed children between ages 3 and 7 in an equestrian competition.

A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many researchers have long suspected: Signs of mathematical prowess are apparent as early as infancy. Even if tykes can’t count or don’t know what a number is, those likely to be successful in math show an innate sense of numerical values early on.

A team from Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pittsburgh is the first to provide evidence that an infant’s “preverbal number sense” is linked to mathematical ability in preschool.

The researchers tested four dozen 6-month-old infants to see whether they could recognize numerical changes using dots. The babies looked at two screens: One showed a constant number of dots but changed their size and position; the other changed the size and position of the dots as well as their number. Some babies looked longer at the screens where the number of dots changed, which researchers concluded was an indication that the babies sensed a difference.

The same children were tested three years later. Researchers found that the children in the group of infants who had stared longer at the screens where the number of dots changed did better on tests of mathematical ability — even when researchers controlled for general intelligence.

Among the implications of their work: the possibility that early interventions could be developed to help children, even very young ones, improve their number sense.

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