Big numbers count when learning 1-2-3

U. CHICAGO (US) — Preschool children don’t “get” counting until they are taught about the numeral four and higher numbers, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Developmental Science, the research shows that children who are exposed to number words from four through 10, along with the number words from one through three, acquire an understanding of the cardinal principle before children who have little exposure to these higher number words—and will do better in math classes.

The cardinal principal says the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set.

“Seeing that there are three objects doesn’t have to involve counting,” says Elizabeth Gunderson, a graduate student working with Susan Levine, professor of psychology and comparative human development at the University of Chicago. “It’s only when children go beyond three that counting is necessary to determine how many objects there are.”

To perform the study, researchers made five home visits and videotaped interactions between 44 youngsters and their parents. The sessions lasted for 90 minutes and were made at four–month intervals, when the youngsters were between the ages of 14 to 30 months. They coded each instance in which parents talked about numbers with their children.

When the children were nearly 4 years old, they were assessed on their understanding of the cardinal principle. The results were then compared to the records of their conversations about numbers with their parents.

Children whose parents talked about sets of four to 10 objects that the child could see were more likely to understand the cardinal principle. Using smaller numbers in conversations and referring to objects the children couldn’t see (such as “I’ll be there in two minutes.”) did not have the same results.

“The results have important policy implications, showing that specific aspects of parents’ engagement in numerically relevant behaviors in the home seem to have an impact on children’s early mathematical development,” according to the study.

Parents frequently do not realize the impact they can have on their children’s understanding of mathematics and believe that a child’s school is primarily responsible for the development of mathematical skills, research shows. They also often overestimate their children’s understanding of mathematics.

Further studies could lead to suggestions of how parents and early childhood educators can best boost early mathematics learning.

The work was supported by a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant, a National Science Foundation Science of Learning grant, and grants from the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center and the National Center for Education Research.

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