What exactly is maths for babies?

I had a lot of kids 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, without exaggeration. Olivia’s family need art as much as plants required sunlight, and they all shared an awful dislike of maths.


I spent a significant portion of my teaching career worrying about students like Olivia. By the time they got to me in high school, their anti-math prejudice had set in. By the age of fifteen or sixteen, my anti-math students had nearly two decades of math-negative signalling: math-hating parents, boring 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, 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 magic (not magic) 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 love, of mathematics from the start.

Many of you have undoubtedly stopped reading because I simply recommended performing maths with newborns. But, if you’re still with me, education and neuroscience taught me three key concepts that led me to this conclusion:

-There is broad agreement that language and literacy should be encouraged beginning at infancy. The principles governing the promotion of mathematics are very similar.

-A large body of data shows that mathematics abilities might be equally as significant as linguistic skills in predicting future success2.

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

Baby Reading

Head Start began in the United States in 1965 as a programme to assist low-income 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, was begun 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 in cognitive, physical, and emotional development.

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

But I’m not writing about books. I’m going to write about maths. And my thesis is straightforward: just as early exposure to vocal language is beneficial for language development and later reading, so is early exposure to numerical reasoning beneficial for later math skill and enjoyment. Children who observe their parents reading every evening are more likely to develop a love of reading themselves. When youngsters observe their parents interacting with and encouraging number thinking, they (often) develop an interest in mathematics.

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

In conclusion, both study and practise promote language and literacy development beginning at infancy. Although research supports numerical development from infancy, I have not seen an equal enthusiasm for numerical development in the United States. I propose that we, as a society, change our focus to exposing kids to a world rich in vocal language and numerical reasoning.

Maths can have just as great of an impact on future results as reading!

Duncan and colleagues2 discovered that school-entry numerical skills were more closely associated to subsequent academic success than school-entry linguistic skills in a longitudinal study of kids from kindergarten to age 14. «Before entering preschool, children vary greatly in their numerical and mathematical knowledge, and this knowledge predicts their achievement throughout elementary school,» the authors wrote. 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 influenced 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 better than reading.

It’s worth noting that early numeracy and literacy aren’t the only factors that influence later results. The comparison of numeracy and literacy in the research outlined above accounts 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 skill is critical for future development—not just in mathematics, but in other areas of life 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 encourage numerically rich settings from infancy.

Babies are already capable of doing maths

Animals can solve maths problems. They conduct fundamental activities such as counting, comparing amounts, and performing basic procedures. In a well-known chimp study9, participants 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, and so on) and paradigms in which the number is unrelated to the reward: For example, Church and Meck10 assigned rats to a lever-pressing task in which they listened to tones and pressed one lever for two tones and a separate lever for four tones. They discovered that rats have a natural sense of quantity.

Babies’ arithmetic abilities have been studied extensively, and highly smart ways for testing their capacity to discern numbers have been created. Early research relied on the fact that newborns gaze at unfamiliar circumstances for extended periods of time. Babies lose interest and look for shorter time when presented with two dots repeatedly. However, when the stimulus was modified to three dots, the newborns stared at the presentation for a longer period of time. This type of effect has been seen in infants as young as one year old, as well as in newborns. Later investigations used new paradigms and stronger visual and spatial controls, and demonstrated that babies identify numerosity consistently.

Neuroscience research has added to the body of evidence demonstrating intrinsic numerical ability in human neonates. Izard and colleagues, for example, evaluated three-month-old newborns by giving arrays of items with various number and identity combinations. They may display three carrots, for example, and then show photos with varying numbers of carrots or the same number but 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—which analyses electrical activity in the brain when a specific stimulus is delivered).

Differences in the right parietal portion of the brain were uniquely characterised by number changes, whereas differences in the occipito-temporal cortex were uniquely identified by 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 study provides evidence that newborns as young as three months old may display early neural markers of arithmetic aptitude.

What is the definition of 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 homes to native English households because of fascinating cultural and linguistic differences14,15. According to these investigations, Mandarin terms for numbers convey more information about quantity than English words. For example, in English, the word «one» can refer to the number one, but it can also be used in the plural, as in «these ones are my favourites.» The Mandarin number lacks this uncertainty.

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

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

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

Subitizing on a regular basis (labelling tiny sets-groups of one, two, or three items)

Math and spatial thinking games, toys and literature

Adults that integrate numeracy in their talks and demonstrate favourable attitudes towards mathematics in the presence of the infant

While these principles are not complicated or difficult to apply, altering individual and group behaviours can be tough. However, altering the number culture in the United States would be tremendously advantageous. In general, the lesson I’ve learned as a teacher and 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. During this time, infants 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 arithmetic began at birth. Her parents, both math-phobic artists, most likely avoided arithmetic jargon around her and encouraged her to focus on the arts rather than numerical activities. Her early surroundings most likely influenced other factors, such as a lack of mathematical passion in her larger community and, subsequently, a few of years of poor educational experiences. However, I believe that it is possible—and even simple—to encourage mathematics, the arts, or reading. It might be as basic as counting with babies.


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Sleeping Like a Baby
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