Most preschoolers and kindergartners (ages four to six) seem to have a natural knack for algebra, according to a recent study published in the journal Developmental Science.

“These very young children, some of whom are just learning to count, and few of whom have even gone to school yet, are doing basic algebra and with little effort,” said lead author and post-doctoral fellow Melissa Kibbe.

“They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”

Humans are born with a natural number sense, also known as the Approximate Number System (ANS) — the ability to quickly size up the quantity of objects in everyday environments.

Previous research has shown that teens with better math skills also had strong number sense as preschoolers. Number sense peaks at age 35.

Kibbe, who works in the lab of Lisa Feigenson, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, wondered if preschool-age children could harness that intuitive mathematical ability to solve for a hidden variable.

In other words, could they figure out basic algebra before ever having formal math instruction? It turns out they could, at least when the problem was acted out by two furry stuffed animals who had “magic cups” filled with objects like buttons, plastic doll shoes, and pennies.

In the study, children were introduced to the two animal characters (Gator and Cheetah), each of which had a cup filled with an unknown quantity of items. The children were told that each character’s cup would “magically” add more items to a pile of objects already sitting on a table.

Children were not allowed to see the number of objects inside the cups — they only saw the pile before it was added to, and after, so they had to infer approximately how many objects Gator’s cup and Cheetah’s cup contained.

Finally, the researcher pretended that she had mixed up the cups, and asked the children — after showing them what was in one of the cups — to help her figure out whose cup it was.

Most of the children knew whose cup it was, a finding that suggests that they had been solving for a missing quantity — the same as doing basic algebra.

“What was in the cup was the x and y variable, and children nailed it,” said Feigenson, director of the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development.

“Gator’s cup was the x variable and Cheetah’s cup was the y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut level number sense to solve this task.”

Source:  Johns Hopkins