What Mathematical Concepts Do Infants and Toddlers Learn?
Some of children’s first thinking happens when they begin to distinguish between things that they have seen before and new stimuli (Wiebe et al., 2006). A child becomes habituated to objects in their environment. When this happens, they tend to pay attention to it less and less. To recognize something as familiar means that the child knows that they have previously experienced it. When a new or novel stimulus is introduced, the child will spend more time examining it than the familiar object (E. M. Brannon, Abbott, & Lutz, 2004; E. M. Brannon et al., 2006). The implication of this is that infant’s minds are actively engaged in observing new objects and stimuli in their environment. Every aspect of a new object fascinates them. Once it becomes familiar they spend less time looking at it because their brains are more accustomed to it. Infants are acting on objects not only with their hands, mouths, and eyes, but with their brains.
Research shows us that even very young babies have an abstract understanding of quantity and a more concrete, object-related sense of number. Infants as young as 6 months can tell the difference between large sets of objects based only on number, provided the ratio of difference is great enough (they can discriminate 8 vs. 16 but not 8 vs. 10) (Barth, Mont, Lipton, & Spelke, 2005; Feigenson et al., 2002; Jordan & Brannon, 2006; Xu et al., 2005).
Research has also shown that children as young as 7 months of age are developing an understanding of mathematics (E. M. Brannon, 2002, 2003; Feigenson et al., 2002; McCrink & Wynn, 2004; Wynn, 2000). Consider the following observation in an infant-toddler program.
The teacher shakes a rattle in front of a child and says, “See the rattle?” The infant, sitting in a high chair, reaches for the rattle and grabs hold. She then drops the rattle. When the teacher picks up the rattle and gives it back to the child, she drops it again on the right side of the chair with eyes steadfastly fixed to the floor. The teacher picks up the rattle, saying “Oops! The rattle fell on the floor!” as she returns it to the child. The child then takes the rattle and drops it on the left side of the chair, again watching it fall and staring at it on the floor.
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