The first rule of performing cognitive experiments on little kids? It’s probably best to call them something else. Using “experiments” and “little kids” in the same sentence makes for awkward moments at dinner parties/loss of playdates under the best of circumstances and visits from Child Services under the worst. So, let’s agree to describe the following as “games.”
“They’re specific activities you do with kids to learn about the way they think,” clarifies Azadeh Jamalian, Co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at Tiggly, which designs interactive tablet-based games that will make you feel a lot better about your kid playing with your iPad. She also has a PhD in Cognitive Studies from the Teachers College at a little educational startup called Columbia University.
Tiggly’s games are based on the educational theory that kids learn better when cognitive realizations are paired with physical objects and gestures. And, while these experime … er … games will give you a sense of your kid’s comprehension, with a literal flick of the wrist you can help them form some concrete ideas around some pretty abstract concepts. Because, have you ever thought about numbers — like really thought about them, man?
“Ask a 3-year old to count for you,” Jamalian says. “Most likely, they’ll do it very easily. One, 2, 3, 4 — all the way up to 10. Show them 5 candies and ask them how many are there, and again, most likely they’ll count them up. One, 2, 3, 4, 5. As a result, a lot of parents will think because the child can count the objects, they know their numbers.”
You can feel the “but” coming, right?
“What they don’t realize is that a lot of 3-year-olds and even some young 4-year-olds don’t really understand the purpose of counting, and the relation between number words and the quantities they represent,” she says. Ask a 2 or 3-year old to pull 5 candies from a bag, and most likely they’ll just grab a bunch without stopping to count. To them, Jamalian notes, “5 candies” doesn’t really mean “5,” it means “a lot.”
Another way to play this game: Ask your kid what number comes after 5. If they reply “6,” not only do they have an understanding of cardinality, they also understand the relation between numbers (for those of you who don’t speak math, cardinality is this). But if like a lot of little ones they start from one and work their way up? That connection isn’t as strong.
The Gesture: Jamalian recommends emphasizing gestures as part of any counting exercises. “Try to add a grouping gesture when they’re done with their counting,” she says. “Always emphasize the whole set, rather than the last number that was counted.”
You’re checking to see if they understand that 5 represents something concrete —a specific set of discrete things — rather than simply the place you stop after counting to 4. “If they actually count the candies one by one and give you exactly 5 that means they know the concept of cardinality,” she says. It’s that understanding of the relationship between numbers that allows kids to learn addition and do it efficiently.
After all, if they can count to 8, they can add 5 and 3 by counting 5 fingers on one hand and 3 on the other. But if they know that an open hand equals 5 and can start with 6 on the next hand? They’ll get to 8 a lot faster.
With language, it’s instructive to watch how your kids start to understand the concept of time. Ask grown ups to order the events of the day, and they’ll usually write it on a line, because we tend to see time and space as moving forward. Little guys don’t see things that way, which is why — to them — “5 minutes!” at the park as a fully flexible, time-general heads up that at some point, everyone’s headed to the car. It can just as easily mean 2 minutes or 10.
The Gesture: Show with your hands whether the time you’re indicating is longer or shorter. If you’re giving them 10 minutes, move your hands farther apart than if you’re giving them 5 minutes. “Hand gestures and body movements help. It’s something more concrete to make the words have more meaning,” Jamalian says. The same principle applies to other properties in their environment like tall and short, big and small, and so on.
This, by the way, works just as well if you want to influence the thinking of adults. Jamalian cites an MIT study in which people were told that a hypothetical meeting had been moved: “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been rescheduled 2 days forward.” Half the people thought that meant Friday and half thought it meant Monday. But in a follow up study done by Jamalian and Prof. Barbara Tversky, when the statement included a gesture away from the body, 90 percent thought that meant Friday. A gesture toward the body? Ninety percent thought it was Monday .
That underscores another important point for Jamalian: These games aren’t meant to get parents to freak out at what their kid may or may not be able to do. “It’s about enjoying the way their brains work,” Jamalian says, “and all the little things they have to learn.”
Just remember, don’t call them experiments. It’s not the kind of thing you want boomeranging back at a wedding toast 25 years down the line.