Playing a math game designed to encourage practicing the basic “number sense” all children are born with improved the ability of young children in a study to do math, Johns Hopkins University researchers report. The study is due to be released in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in July and is available online now.
“Math ability is not static—it’s not the case that if you’re bad at math, you’re bad at it the rest of your life. It’s not only changeable, it can be changeable in a very short period of time,” said Jinjing “Jenny” Wang, the lead researcher, in a statement.
In the experiment, children were shown a split screen. One side had blue dots and the other had yellow dots. The dots were all different sizes and were flashed on the screen too quickly for kids to stop and count. Next, they had to say or point to the larger collection of dots. The basic identity of “more” is something even babies can do, so it wasn’t surprising that the 5-year-old children in the experiment, who were mostly white with college-educated parents, performed well.
What was surprising was that researchers found that kids who participated in the dots activity performed better in a follow-up test of more discrete math skills assessed with questions like: ''Count backward starting from 10.” Or ''Joey has 1 block and gets 2 more; how many does he have altogether?” Researchers also assessed the children’s ability to say which of two numbers is bigger and to read and write numerals.
Here’s a great video of kids doing the tasks in the experiment:
Among the children who practiced with the dots, those who practiced with easier dot problems first and then progressed to harder ones did even better than kids who did the problems in a random order, suggesting that it makes a difference to do things in a traditional “training” order. The children who “trained” were correct on about 80 percent of the questions on the follow-up test.
“Of course, this raises the question of whether this kind of rapid improvement lasts for any significant duration, and whether it enhances all types of math abilities,” said Lisa Feigenson, another one of the researchers, in a statement. “We’re excited to follow up on these questions.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.