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Study examines how parents talk to infants about math
Baby playing on floor with parent

Children enter kindergarten with varying math skills and, much like literacy and language development, exposure to and experience with math at home in the early years of development can be a strong predictor of later achievement in math. But Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Meredith Rowe and former HGSE researcher Kathryn Leech, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, wondered: Do parents actually talk to infants about math?

“We know that the math skills children have when they start kindergarten are really strong predictors of their later math abilities, but we don’t know how those skills are built in the first place,” says Leech.

In their recent study, Leech, Rowe, and co-authors Katelyn Herbert and Qianru Tiffany Yang, an HGSE alum and doctoral student, respectively, explore just how early kids are introduced to math, what kinds of math concepts might be introduced at such a young age through play, and whether this exposure changes depending on a child’s gender or socioeconomic status.

Using a small but diverse sample of primary caregivers and infants from the greater Boston area, the research team videotaped a series of 15-minute play sessions between caregivers and their children. The toys used in these sessions were chosen because they weren’t explicitly designed to elicit math talk. These interactions were observed when the children were between the ages of 10 and 18 months.

What Does Math Talk Look Like?

Because the children in the study were so young, the researchers weren’t looking for parents to ask questions or elicit information from children. The researchers focused on references to number and number concepts — for example, counting small sets, cardinality (“here are four shapes”), and using words like “many,” “few,” or “first.”

What They Observed about Math Talk

  • Even though there wasn’t a ton of math talk, especially with the youngest infants, all parents did incorporate math talk in their play with children — whether it was a math word or a reference to number. 
  • There was variation in the amount of math talk parents engaged in. Some parents used more words than others. But this variation was not explained by the parent’s socioeconomic status in this study. “I think this is, in some ways, great because for all these kids in this sample, based on this data, there isn’t a socioeconomic advantage in infancy,” says Rowe.
  • As the infants got older, all families increased their math references over time
  • However, the increase in math references, though subtle, was larger for boys than girls. While the data isn’t extensive enough to draw conclusions and further study is needed, this could be an early indication of how math stereotypes might accumulate.  

Because references to numbers accumulate over time and cumulative experiences can be predictive of later success, Rowe and Leech note that it’s important to understand how children are introduced to math talk and what conditions help or impede that talk. “It’s a general theoretical perspective that early conversations during early childhood can promote literacy and language but also cognitive development more broadly depending on what the talk consists of,” says Rowe.

Parents Should Know...

As the study indicates, most parents already seem to be introducing math talk with children from a young age and, as the child gets older, increasing that frequency as well as the complexity of math talk. Importantly, parents don’t necessarily need special toys or gadgets that prompt this kind of talk. “It’s a recognition that you can talk about math and numbers anywhere,” says Leech. “This study is just one example of how, in a play context, math and numbers might come up.” 

For those parents looking to do more, Rowe recommends parents start by just counting what’s around them — from the number of Cheerios on the highchair to the number of stairs you’re climbing. “It gives you something to do and talk about with your child, and comparing quantities is a great skill to develop,” she says. 

Key Takeaways

  • Parents do talk with infants about counting and number.
  • A parent’s socioeconomic status did not appear to impact the amount of math talk parents engage in with children in this study.
  • As children get older, all families increased their math references. 
  • The researchers did observe a subtle difference in the increase in math references over time, the increase being larger for boys. Further study is needed to explore whether this is an early indication of an accumulation of a stereotype. 

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