Study: A simple game could boost children’s math skills

WASHINGTON — We are all born with a gut sense about numbers and quantity — even a toddler, for example, will reach for a plate with more cookies or crackers.

Now Maryland researchers have come up with a simple game that can hone that intuitive sense and use it to make children better at arithmetic.

The 5-minute game was developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Many academics consider math abilities hard to improve. But the researchers at Johns Hopkins had a hunch that by exercising a child’s intuitive sense of numbers, they might grow children’s mathematic abilities.

A team from the university’s Department of Physiological and Brain Sciences tested their theory on a group of forty 5-year-olds. The children were asked to play a computerized dot game in which they were shown two collections of dots — a yellow set and a blue set.

The dots flashed on the screen too quickly to count. Using that intuitive gut number sense, the children were asked by researchers whether there were more blue dots or yellow dots. Afterward, they were given a math quiz.

“The children who in the dot game had the opportunity to sharpen their abilities by starting with the easier problems and gradually moving toward the hard problems did better with math,” said professor Lisa Feigenson.

The kids who played the game the proper way — easiest to hardest — correctly answered about 80 percent of the questions on the math assessment. Those who had the hardest dot questions first correctly answered just 60 percent of the questions.

“These results are really exciting to us because they show a very clear connection between an evolutionary, ancient set of abilities and a uniquely human set of formal math abilities,” said Feigenson.

She says they were able to show that providing training to help kids develop their gut sense of approximate numbers can make them better at math, at least temporarily. The big job now for researchers is to figure out a way to use the technique to provide lasting results.

The findings of the Hopkins study are in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

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