Most preschoolers and kindergartners can do some algebra even before entering a math class, a new study claims.
“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 Melissa Kibbe from the Johns Hopkins University.
“They do it by using what we call their ‘Approximate Number System:’ their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number,” Kibbe said.
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The “Approximate Number System,” or ANS, is also called “number sense,” and describes humans’ and animals’ ability to quickly size up the quantity of objects in their everyday environments, researchers said.
Humans and a host of other animals are born with this ability and it is probably an evolutionary adaptation to help human and animal ancestors survive in the wild, scientists said.
Previous researches have revealed that adolescents with better math abilities also had superior number sense when they were preschoolers, and that number sense peaks at age 35.
Kibbe wondered whether preschool-age children could harness that intuitive mathematical ability to solve for a
hidden variable. The answer was “yes,” at least when the algebra problem was acted out by two furry stuffed animals – Gator and Cheetah- using “magic cups” filled with objects like buttons, plastic doll shoes and pennies.
Children sat down individually with an examiner who introduced them to the two characters, each of whom had a cup filled with an unknown quantity of items. They were told that each character’s cup would “magically” add more items to a pile of objects already sitting on a table. But children were not allowed to see the number of
objects in either cup.
In the end, the examiner 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.
Majority of the children knew whose cup it was, a finding that revealed that the pint-sized participants had been
solving for a missing quantity, which is the essence of doing basic algebra, researchers said.