For decades, the astounding mathematical capabilities of babies and young children were ignored. Today, several studies have shown that infants are able to perceive and understand numbers and values.
And even more significant findings show that babies who are introduced to numbers and encouraged to develop number sense find it easier to learn more complex mathematical concepts later on in life.
“Every child is in a way a genius; and every genius is in a way a child” - Arthur Schopenhauer
Discovering Numbers Under the Age of 1
Understanding the cognitive capacities of babies isn’t simple.
Infants usually make sense of their environment using one sense: sight. Many studies look at babies’ behaviour when presented with a stimulus where researchers analyse their facial expressions.
The mathematical capabilities of children can be recognised from when they open their eyes.
Research carried out by neurologists at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (North Carolina) on 6-month-old babies showed that even before having developed language skills, babies have a remarkable capacity for maths and display an innate understanding of figures.
By showing them two screens both with 8 dots some times, and 8 and 16 dots for others, the babies focussed on the screen with the changed number for each image.
Three years later, this same study also demonstrates that the more attentive babies from the experiment found it easiest to grasp new mathematical concepts.
Number sense at a very early age seems to be an indicator of academic success in the future.
A second study carried out by Dr Elizabeth S. Spelke from Harvard University measured the level of comprehension of babies.
It found that very young children are able to estimate quantities by visual evaluation.
When an adult plunged their hand into a bucket filled with 80% white ping-pong balls and 20% red ones, the babies seemed surprised if the adult took out more red balls than white ones.
This capability to understand quantities quickly develops during the first year. In the beginning, children are able to recognise differences between two groups of objects:
- From 6 months, babies are able to tell the difference between two large collections where one is twice as big as the other
- From 9 to 12 months, their mathematical abilities improve and they are able to tell the difference between a collection of 8 toys and a group of 10
Maths for Children Aged 1 to 3 Years
From the age of 1 year old, children’s mathematical skills rapidly improve as they learn two major skills: walking and talking.
While they move around on their feet, they gain spatial awareness which is a basis for geometry. Language acquisition means children start putting names to digits, which will eventually lead to them learning to count.
Even basic calculation isn’t very far away at this age as children do addition and subtraction without realising.
For example, they know that if you take 1 toy away from a group of 3, there will be 2 toys remaining. In the same way, if you add a toy to a group of 2, there will be 3 in total.
Young children develop skills not only with their observational skills, but also with their understanding of manipulation. This is an essential point for parents who want to encourage their child to enjoy maths in the future.
Each child should be allowed to blossom in their own time, with enough support to promote good understanding.
Building Blocks and Shapes to Help with Geometry
If you’re the parent of a young child, you’ve probably got some educational toys.
Among these learning toys, there will probably be some games or puzzles based on shapes, where the child has to fit a cube or a cylinder into a box through the correct hole.
In the beginning, this may be a difficult task for children, but with practice, they will begin to understand how the puzzle works and solve it in no time.
Why is this so important?
Because geometry is a major mathematical discipline! By playing educational games and doing puzzles, children improve their spatial awareness and perception skills.
By playing with 3D shapes and polygons, children develop their logical thinking skills.
Stacking cubes and arranging them in size order teaches children to compare, categorise and organise whilst entertaining the creative side of the mind.
Children should be able to understand that they themselves can manipulate objects and think logically. The better they understand this, the better tidying, classing and grouping skills they will have.
Which Maths Games are Best for Learning?
The goal of math games is to generate interest while having fun as the learner makes a large part of his discoveries independently. As parents, your role is not that of a maths teacher, but you can help introduce and explain topics.
Have you noticed how your baby likes to throw away objects that come within reach? This is simply a demonstration that they have recognised the force of gravity and are repeating an action that helps them experience how it works.
So, don’t let this behaviour annoy you! Learn to let your child know that you appreciate their learning and give them praise.
For learning maths, the process is the same - children must practice if they are to make progress. Encourage your child and let them know that you value their discoveries! Hands-on educational games are brilliant for toddlers, who get to know the world through touch.
Filling, emptying, stacking up and fitting are the essential steps for the youngest children.
Until the age of 18 months, not only can children begin to think mathematically, but they can also develop their fine and gross motor skills as they begin to gain coordination skills.
Parents tend to favour:
- Building blocks (such as Lego Duplo),
- Puzzles involving simple shapes,
Can Nursery Rhymes Help with Number Sense?
Singing nursery rhymes is incredibly helpful to children learning to count.
As well as singing, you can act out the words, count on your fingers and relate the words to pictures. There are many easy games that can be used to introduce children to numbers and day-to-day maths.
Use numbers in everyday activities. For example, you could ask your child to count the number of a certain type of object in your house and make the game easier or more complex depending on their age.
Games such as this one help children visualise the results of their calculations.
It’s a long way to using maths for accounting, but it’s a start!
Learning Geometric Shapes
Once a child is familiar with shapes, it’s important that they not only learn to recognise them but also to name them.
There are many examples that could be used in this context, and it’s not difficult to invent games to help children get to grips with naming shapes.
At the dinner table, for example, why not ask your child whether they would like a cube of cheese or a square of chocolate.
Learn about Volume and Litres with Liquids
The concept of volume is essential in maths. Children may have difficulty deciding which glass is holding the most liquid if the glasses aren’t the same shape.
Games involving pouring can demonstrate the physical side of the numbers and show children how volume works.
You can easily demonstrate volume at bath time when there is water all around. This is the ideal time to show them that a glass which appears smaller can hold the same amount as a glass that appears larger.
You could even teach them about water displacement and point out that the water level rises once they get into the bath, even though the volume of liquid remains unchanged.
Find a maths tutor on Superprof!
Sequence and Pattern Games
It’s easy to make games out of everyday items!
By lining up different-coloured objects and asking your child to continue the pattern, they develop logical reasoning skills which will serve them in later life.
You could ask them to arrange the objects in size order. This way, your child will develop an understanding of size even before they learn to count!
To help prepare your child for their formal education in maths, let’s talk about the creative side of learning. It’s important that you don’t get lost in your creativity and make activities excessive since this risks losing sight of the objective.
It is also important to work at your child’s pace and don’t rush them, as this may make them stressed.
Try to take a hands-on and fun approach to learning numbers.
Your child will become familiar and confident with the basic topics which will set them up to take their learning further in the future.
One day, your games and activities will pay off, as your child begins to learn their multiplication table, Pythagorean theorem, graphing, differential equations, integration and trigonometry!
Learn how maths can help manage your money here.