One day last summer I was playing with my niece Emily in her kitchen. The bottom half of the refrigerator, right at her eye level, was covered in colorful letter and number magnets. And Emily, then 22 months, knew them all. I’d say, Where’s R?, and she’d point to R. What’s that? I’d ask and point, and she’d call out, four!
I was floored. It was a rare glimpse into what her young mind understands about the world. She can’t tell us what she’s thinking, after all.
I’ve been thinking about Emily and her magnets because of a new study about how childrens’ brains crunch numbers. Understanding what a number is — that the curved shape of the Arabic numeral 2 is named ‘two’, and that it has a conceptual meaning of not one thing, not three things, but two things — comes after a surprisingly long developmental process. Kids learn to recite number sequences, like 1 to 10, around age 2. (Emily counts up to 25 now, I’m proud to share.) But if you ask a 2-year-old to pick out three pieces of candy from a bowl, she’ll probably just grab a handful.
“They might be able to learn it for one piece of candy. Then it will take months for them to be able to give you two, then months after that to give you three,” says Jessica Cantlon, a neuroscientist at Rochester University. Then around age 3 or 4 they have an a-ha moment, she says. “The whole thing clicks. They make this inductive leap and understand the counting system.”
Read more at…