I had 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 a terrible dislike of maths.


I spent a lot of my teaching career thinking about students like Olivia. By the time they got to 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: parents who disliked math, dull curricula, and a dominant culture in the United States that treats math like magic rather than an accessible 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 I had a student like Olivia who genuinely believed me when I told her she could do maths, who made the leap of faith and boarded my magic (not magic) carpet of maths inquiry.

Because of these pupils, I began my training to become a neuroscientist. I frequently likened their brains to the brains of the math-lovers in my classes. I was wondering how early in development children begin to create concepts connected to numbers, and how early variances in numerical development may begin that may later appear in school. I’ll get to their heads in a moment, 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 since birth. Parents have the chance to instill a respect, if not a love, of mathematics in their children from the start.

Many of you undoubtedly quit reading because I simply suggested practising maths with newborns. But, if you’re still with me, here are the three primary principles from education and neuroscience that led me to this conclusion:

-There is widespread agreement that language and literacy should be promoted beginning at birth. The principles for promoting mathematics are quite similar.

-Plenty of data shows that mathematics abilities might be as significant as or more important than linguistic skills in predicting future success2.

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

Baby reading

Head Start was established in the United States in 1965 as a programme to assist impoverished preschool children and their families. Initially an eight-week summer programme, Head Start expanded to become a crucial year-round supplier of early childhood support, including classes, services, and outreach programmes (Sesame Street, in fact, began with Head Start money in 1969). Importantly, Early Head Start was established in 1994 to assist children ages 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 issue) and even speak to their newborns. With their first kid, my brother and his wife understood they should talk to their baby as much as possible, even if they didn’t know why.

But I’m not writing about reading. I’m blogging about maths. And my thesis is simple: just as early exposure to vocal language is vital for language development and later reading, so is early exposure to numerical reasoning for later math proficiency and enjoyment. When youngsters observe their parents reading every evening, they (often) develop a love of reading. When youngsters witness their parents engage with and foster numerical thinking, they (often) develop an interest in maths.

Skwarchuk, Sowinski, and LeFevre5 searched for associations between four-year-olds’ household settings and numeracy and literacy results one year later. They discovered that rigorous home numeracy practises predicted children’s understanding of the symbolic number system, but 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 values corresponded with later mathematical aptitude in three- to five-year-olds.

To summarise, both study and practise promote language and literacy development beginning at infancy. Although research supports numerical development from infancy, I have not seen the same level of enthusiasm for numerical development in the United States. I propose that we, as a society, transition to showing newborns a world replete with oral language and numerical reasoning.

Maths has the same impact on future results as reading!

Duncan and colleagues2 discovered that school-entry numerical skills linked with subsequent academic success more than school-entry linguistic skills in a longitudinal study of kids from kindergarten to age 14. The authors state, «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 the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy in England7 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, rate of employment, and pay. Numeracy, rather than literacy, predicted economic well-being, house ownership rate, and even problems with authority in some categories.

It is crucial to remember that early numeracy and literacy are not the sole metrics that link with later results. In the research outlined above, the comparison of numeracy and literacy adjusts for other relevant criteria 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 only in mathematics, but also in critical life outcomes. This association 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 do maths.

Animals can compute. They count, compare amounts, and execute fundamental procedures. In a famous chimp study9, for example, individuals were offered with trays containing varying quantities of chocolate bits, and they consistently preferred the dish with the largest number. Other experiments have used various senses (hearing, touch, sight, etc.) and paradigms in which the number is independent of the reward: Church and Meck10, for example, offered rats a lever-pressing task in which they listened to tones and pressed one lever for two tones and a different lever for four tones. They also discovered that rats have an intrinsic sense of quantity.

Researchers studying newborns’ arithmetic abilities have devised quite sophisticated techniques for testing their capacity to discern numbers. Early research relied on the fact that newborns gaze longer at novel circumstances. Babies lost interest and stared for shorter time after being shown two dots repeatedly. However, when the stimulus was modified to three dots, newborns stared at the presentation for a longer period of time. This type of outcome has been seen in infants as early as one year old and even in neonates. Later investigations used other paradigms and improved visual and spatial controls, and they consistently demonstrated that babies discern numerosity.

Neuroscience research has offered some more 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 could display three carrots and then show photos with varying numbers of carrots or the same number but with other things. They discovered that cerebral activity differed for number (i.e., same item but 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).

Number changes were specifically indicated by alterations in the right parietal area of the brain, whereas identity changes were uniquely marked by abnormalities in the occipito-temporal cortex. 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 newborns may display early neural markers of arithmetic aptitude as early as three months of age.

What is maths for babies?

Studies comparing the influence of culture and language on pre-schooling numerical ability and the link of this ability to later academic success provide some hints as to whether environmental elements are beneficial to early numerical development. Many studies, for example, compare native Mandarin to native English homes because of fascinating cultural and linguistic differences14,15. According to these findings, Mandarin terms for numbers are more precise regarding amount than English words. For example, the English word «one» can signify the number one, but it can also be used in the plural, as in «these ones are my favourites.» This uncertainty does not occur for the Mandarin number.

The language clarity for Mandarin numbers may contribute to Chinese pupils outperforming those in the United States in mathematics (as revealed in the preceding research). Other aspects include formal schooling experiences with parents and family perspectives on the relevance of academic learning.

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

-Frequent parental use of quantitative speech, particularly speech that specifies amounts in groupings (e.g., three giraffes, ten penguins).

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

-Games, toys, and literature that encourage numerical and spatial thinking

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

While these principles are neither complex or difficult to apply, altering individual and group behaviours can be tough. Changing the number culture in the United States, on the other hand, would be tremendously advantageous. In general, the lesson I’ve learned 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 the world should be.

In the case of Olivia, my math-phobic high school student, I believe her dislike of mathematics began from birth. Her parents, both math-phobic artists, most likely avoided arithmetic jargon around her and pushed the arts over numerical activities. Her early surroundings most likely influenced additional variables, 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, and reading. With babies, it may be as easy as counting.


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