Mathematics is one of those subjects that seems to take a toll on early learners. For many, it’s repetitive, boring and only good for knowing when the jerk next to you has more cookies. And while kids may be cursing the person who invented it (damn you, Mesopotamians), it turns out that an understanding of mathematical concepts might be hardwired into human brains.
Research has found that your baby knows the amount of things, as well as how to add and subtract, before they’re even a year old. Which is great to know, but how turn them into more than a jealous cookie counter?
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Research For The Wynn
The core of that baby research comes from Yale psychology professor Karen Wynn. Along with fellow neuroscientist Koleen McCrink, Wynn put together an experiment in 2005 to find out if babies had a sense of addition and subtraction.
Wynn showed 9-month-old babies an animation where 2 sets of 5 rectangles disappeared behind a screen. Wynn then removed the screen revealing either 10 rectangles, the correct result, or 5 rectangles, the unexpected result. They found that the babies stared much longer at the unexpected outcome. In other words, they were surprised by what they were seeing. “WTF? GTFO, with that 5 rectangle nonsense,” their little baby expressions presumably said.
Interestingly, the outcome was similar for a subtraction animation as well.
On The Ratio
It’s also been found that babies as young as 3 months can detect changes in quantities of objects. And it appears their comprehension of numbers increases from there. At 6 months, babies can distinguish in ratios of 2:1, and by 10 months that improves to 3:2. What’s more, it turns out that babies that have a better sense of this at 6 months are more likely to have better foundational number skills at age 3.
Researchers believe this stuff is innate in our biology, and studies suggest monkey brains respond in similar ways. That’s thanks to brain-dwellers called accumulator neurons. Exposure to a series of objects will cause these suckers to fire up in monkeys, and this appears to be the same mechanism working in humans. So, the good news is your kid is way smarter than you thought; the bad news is, your kid isn’t much smarter than a monkey.
Making It Count
It’s likely that you’re already talking to your kid constantly to boost language development. You can double up on your awesomeness by combining the chatter with mathematical concepts. Here are a few ideas of number-related things you can talk about:
- Count small numbers of things in the context of everyday life. Including crackers, eyes, and how many times mommy has sighed at the sight of the laundry.
- Compare amounts of things to boost the understanding of less and more.
- Talk as you manipulate heavy and light objects to give a sense of measurement, full vs. not full diapers for instance.
- Point out and describe patterns, which could include the alternating colored stripes on your tie — if you have bad taste in ties.
- Talk about the size of things in relation to other objects in the environment. Yes, the neighbor’s house is a lot bigger than yours.
- Describe spatial relationships. Tell your kid where they are in space (on, under, up, down). That’s different from how your butcher throws in an extra chop, which is a special relationship.
In the end, it might be helpful to simply make a list of math phrases that you can throw into your daily conversation with them. Hang it on the fridge. And then make every conversation count.