Babies can already perform maths.

I dealt with numerous pupils like Olivia when I was teaching maths. She was a student in high school who aspired to be an actress; her parents were artists; and her brother was a guitar prodigy. Olivia’s family required art as plants needed sunlight, and they all shared an awful dislike for maths.


I spent a significant portion of my teaching career thinking about students like Olivia. By the time they got to me in high school, they had developed strong anti-math feelings. By the age of fifteen or sixteen, my anti-math students had nearly two decades of math-negative signalling: math-hating parents, dull curricula, and a dominant culture in the United States that treats math as a magical tool that everyone should learn to use (there is a lot of good discussion about this: try reading Petra Bonfert-Taylor’s Washington Post article about math culture). Sometimes, like Olivia, I had a student who genuinely believed me when I told her she could do maths, who made the leap of faith and boarded my magical (not magical) carpet of maths inquiry.

These youngsters inspired me to pursue a career as a neuroscientist. I often contrasted their minds to the brains of the math-lovers in my classes. I was wondering how early in development children begin to create number ideas, and how early variances in numerical development may begin that may later appear in school. I’ll get to their heads in a minute, but the first thing I realized—and many of you already know this—is that confidence and curiosity in mathematics can and should begin at a young age. Even from birth. Parents have the chance to foster a respect, if not a passion, of mathematics from the start.

Many of you have undoubtedly stopped reading because I just suggested practising maths with newborns. But, if you’re still with me, three major themes from education and neuroscience led me to this conclusion:

There is widespread agreement that language and literacy should be encouraged beginning at infancy. The principles for encouraging mathematics are quite similar.

Plenty of data shows that mathematics abilities might be equally as significant as linguistic skills in predicting future success2.

Unlike reading or speaking, newborns can already do maths (or at least distinguish between sets of two and three objects3).

Reading to infants

Head Start began in the United States in 1965 as a programme to assist poor preschool children and their families. Initially an eight-week summer programme, Head Start expanded to become an important year-round supplier of early childhood support, including classes, services, and outreach programmes (Sesame Street, for example, began with Head Start financing in 1969). Importantly, Early Head Start was established in 1994 to assist children aged zero to three, in response to research indicating the importance of these years for cognitive, physical, and emotional development.

Nowadays, I encounter many parents who understand the value of «language nutrition» (to use a phrase from Rose Hendricks’ paper on the subject) and even speak to their newborns. When my brother and his wife had their first kid, they understood they should talk to their baby as often as possible, even if they didn’t know why.

However, I’m not writing about reading. I’m writing about mathematics. And my conclusion is straightforward: just as early exposure to vocal language is beneficial to language development and later reading, so is early exposure to numerical reasoning beneficial to later math skill and appreciation. Children who witness their parents reading every evening (frequently) develop a love of reading. When youngsters observe their parents interacting with and encouraging number thinking, they (often) develop an interest in maths.

Skwarchuk, Sowinski, and LeFevre5 investigated four-year-olds’ household surroundings for links to numeracy and literacy levels one year later. They discovered that rigorous home numeracy practises predicted children’s symbolic number system understanding, and that exposure to games with numerical content predicted children’s non-symbolic arithmetic. Another study by Libertus, Feigenson, and Halberda6 discovered evidence that early awareness of tiny number amounts corresponded with later mathematical aptitude in three- to five-year-olds.

To summarise, study and practise both promote language and literacy development beginning at infancy. Although research supports numerical development from infancy, I have not seen an equal level of enthusiasm for numerical development in the United States. I propose that as a civilization, we transition to exposing kids to a world rich in vocal language and numerical reasoning.

Maths can have the same impact on future results as reading!

Duncan and colleagues2 discovered that school-entry numerical skills connected with subsequent academic success more than school-entry linguistic skills in a longitudinal study of kids from school entry to age 14. According to the authors, «before they enter preschool, children vary greatly in their numerical and mathematical knowledge, and this knowledge predicts their achievement throughout elementary school.» Another study from England’s National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy7 examined a vast longitudinal data collection that tracked babies from birth to the age of 30.

They discovered that early numeracy and literacy both contributed to adult outcomes such as high school dropout rate, degree of schooling obtained, employment rate, and pay. In several subgroups, numeracy predicted economic well-being, house ownership rate, and even disputes with authority more than reading.

It is crucial to emphasise that early numeracy and literacy are not the only indicators of future results. The comparison of numeracy and literacy in the research outlined above adjusts for other relevant characteristics such as socioeconomic position, which has a substantial link with all cognitive skills8. My thesis here is simply that early numerical aptitude is vital for future development—not just in mathematics, but in other areas as well. This link between early numeracy and later results, I believe, is just another reason why parents and teachers in the United States should foster numerically rich settings from infancy.

Babies can already perform maths

Animals can calculate. They execute simple activities such as counting and comparing amounts. In a famous chimp study9, for example, individuals were offered with trays containing varying quantities of chocolate bits, and they consistently preferred the dish containing the largest number. Other studies have used various senses (hearing, touch, sight, etc.) and paradigms in which the number is unrelated to the reward: For example, Church and Meck10 offered rats a lever-pressing task in which they listened to tones and pressed one lever for two tones and another for four tones. They also discovered that rats have a natural sense of quantity.

The study of newborns’ numerical abilities has resulted in the development of highly ingenious ways for testing their capacity to discern numbers. Early research relied on the notion that newborns gaze at unfamiliar circumstances for a longer period of time. When newborns were repeatedly shown two dots, they lost interest and stared for shorter time at each presentation. However, when the stimulus was adjusted to three dots, newborns stayed more focused on the presentation. This type of finding has been seen in infants as early as one year old and even in neonates. Later research used other paradigms and improved visual and spatial controls and demonstrated that babies discern numerosity consistently.

Neuroscience studies have added to the evidence for intrinsic numeracy ability in human neonates. Izard and colleagues, for example, evaluated three-month-old newborns by giving arrays of items with varying number and identity combinations. They may display three carrots, for example, and then show photos with varying quantities of carrots or the same amount but with other items. They discovered that cerebral activity differed for number (i.e., same item but in various amounts) compared to object identity (same quantity but distinct objects) using event-related electroencephalogram (ERP—this monitors electrical activity in the brain when a certain stimulus is delivered).

Differences in the right parietal area of the brain specifically marked number changes, whereas differences in the occipito-temporal cortex uniquely marked identity changes. Because the right parietal area of the brain has been demonstrated to be critical for number processing in older children and adults, this work provides evidence that even at three months of age, newborns may display early neural markers of arithmetic aptitude.

What exactly is maths for babies?

Studies that compare the influence of culture and language on pre-schooling numerical ability and the linkage of this ability to later academic success provide some hints as to which environmental elements are beneficial to early numerical development. Many studies, for example, compare native Mandarin to native English homes due to fascinating cultural and linguistic differences14,15. According to these findings, Mandarin terms for numbers are more specific regarding amount than English words. For example, the English word «one» can refer to the number one, but it can also be used in the plural, as in «these are my favourites.» The Mandarin number does not have this issue.

The grammatical clarity of Mandarin numbers may contribute to Chinese pupils outperforming those in the United States in mathematics (as indicated in the preceding research). Other aspects include parental formal education experiences and parental perspectives on the relevance of academic learning.

In general, below are some general concepts about what a rich numerical environment may entail for infants:

-Parental use of quantitative speech is common, particularly speech that indicates amounts in groups (e.g., three giraffes, ten penguins).

-Subitizing often (labelling tiny sets-groups of one, two, or three items)

-Numerical and spatial thinking games, toys, and literature

-Adults that integrate numeracy in their talks and have favourable views towards mathematics in the presence of the infant

While these concepts are not complicated or difficult to execute, they will require altering individual and group-level habits, which may be tough. However, changing the number culture in the United States would be tremendously advantageous. In general, the lesson I’ve learned from my years as a teacher and a scientist is that, while we can and should enhance K-12 and higher education, pre-K may be just as vital, if not more so. This is the time when youngsters are exposed to their new environments and make unconscious judgements about how they want the world to be.

In the case of Olivia, my math-phobic high school student, I believe her aversion to numbers began at birth. Her parents, both math-phobic artists, most likely avoided arithmetic jargon in her presence and emphasised the arts over numerical games. Her early surroundings most likely influenced other factors, such as a lack of mathematics passion in her larger community and, subsequently, a couple years of unpleasant educational experiences. However, I believe it is possible—and even simple—to encourage mathematics, the arts, or reading. It may be as easy as counting with babies.


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