Babies are the image of innocence, with their bright, wide eyes and soft skin. So it’s simple to believe that they know very little about the world around them, and for many years, academics came to that conclusion. They saw a baby’s brain as a naive, blank slate, and attributed the great majority of responsibility for developing his intelligence to the power of nurture. The most recent research shows that it’s not quite that straightforward.
«New laboratory experiments have shown that, from very early in life, babies think about objects, events, and people in some sophisticated and surprising ways,» says Lisa Feigenson, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University’s Laboratory for Child Development. One of the most exciting areas being researched is babies’ understanding of numbers. Yes, numbers—and not only for toddlers. According to Feigenson, the foundations for mature reasoning and even a basic awareness of numbers are there from birth. So, what exactly is going on in that developing brain? And, if newborns are as intelligent as scientists suggest, what can be done to improve their abilities?
Infants as young as 5 months old were able to focus and follow a demonstration in which two dolls were placed behind a screen, which was subsequently lowered to expose one, two, or three dolls in a 1992 study done by Karen Wynn, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Yale University. The study demonstrated that newborns gazed longer at the false results (when the elevated screen displayed one or three dolls) than at the right display. These findings lay the groundwork for the contentious notion that youngsters in their first year of life may comprehend abstract number and math concepts.
More recent research demonstrate that this was not a coincidence. This research has been reproduced and amended across the country, with comparable, and in some cases more comprehensive, results. According to the most recent study, the evolving image of a baby’s brain is far more complicated than the primitive, mentally-vacant newborn that predominated for years. In a nutshell, your infant probably knows more about maths than you realise.
Babies and adults, according to Elizabeth M. Brannon, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, have a «approximate number system.» Babies can recognise the difference between different arrangements of dots in the same way that adults can look at a number of objects and distinguish whether there are more or less items than in another display—but only if the differences are large enough. The capacity of infants to distinguish between visual presentations of numbers improves throughout time, but the heart of these discoveries is that there is a fundamental mechanism in place from birth.
What methods did the researchers use to get their conclusions? By habituating babies—that is, boring them with a specific number of dots on a display. They are given a different display of dots when they begin to spend less time staring at this recurrent picture. Researchers watch their reactions, and in most cases, newborns stare at the new display for substantially longer periods of time, demonstrating that they detect a difference. Looking time, according to scientists, is a strong, dependable measure of a baby’s expectancy (or surprise) at what he sees.
As babies get older, their love of numbers expands to include math. Kolleen McCrink, Ph.D., and Karen Wynn, Ph.D., adapted the doll research by showing nine-month-old newborns short videos depicting settings in which five rectangular «characters» were hidden from view, followed by five more. When the item that was hiding the rectangles moved away from the screen, five or 10 rectangles were exposed. Babies spent more time looking at the erroneous outcome of five rectangles than they did at the intended outcome of ten rectangles. When identical «subtraction movies» were displayed, they discovered the same outcomes.
What does this imply for parents? Can you produce a genius by starting your child with complex maths ideas from the start? The bad news is that experts can’t agree on exactly what can be done to impact extremely early newborns’ arithmetic abilities. They do, however, offer some suggestions for activities that might assist guide newborns and toddlers in the correct direction:
Colourful stimuli, such as huge blocks and tiles, should be provided. Play with your baby and pay attention to what he does. Babies and toddlers instinctively begin categorising items based on size, shape, or colour, laying the groundwork for future mathematics learning.
Give your infant a variety of noisemakers, such as shakers, drums, wrist bells, and so on. Interacting with others and performing musical instruments will help you develop a sense of rhythm. Furthermore, as he plays, he will gradually understand that one shaking or pat generates one sound, two produces two noises, and so on.
Set up items that will encourage your infant to use his motor abilities. To excite newborns’ senses, stacking rings, soft books, and other colourful, tactile toys work wonderfully. As he grows older, you may observe him beginning to organise items in order and in groups—activities that lead to more sophisticated numerical ideas.
It is critical not to overthink teaching maths to your infant. It’s not essential to force newborns to start counting straight immediately, or to bombard them with instruction or flashcards. The good news, and arguably the most significant takeaway from these research, is that neonates have a primitive awareness of numbers that is both inherent and universal.
«Babies are amazing learners, and they do all of this without our help!» explains Feigenson. «The best thing parents can do is participate in their children’s daily activities.» Talk to them about anything—numbers, toys in the playroom, anything. Every event is a learning opportunity for a baby… and involved newborns become engaged children.»
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