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Can toddlers do maths? A Q&A with Dr Vic Simms

How can you help your kids be confident with maths? According to Dr Vic Simms, you can make a difference right from the start, so we invited her along to a Q&A to tell us more.

Vic: Hi all! I’m a developmental psychologist working at Ulster University in Northern Ireland.

I’m really interested in how children’s thinking changes over time – specifically in relation to maths.

My current work is focused on how home environment may influence early development, the impact of immersion schooling on maths understanding and the impact of preterm birth on later development.

PSG A: Hi Vic! When you talk about maths understanding, what sort of things are you referring to – numbers? arithmetic? logic? spatial logic?

Vic: Well….

It depends on the age group that I’m referring to. In the early work with young children we focus on basic numeracy – so counting, ordering and sorting. With older children we look at arithmetic.

But now we are also really interested in algebra and geometry in early adolescents!

PSG A: How important is counting, ordering and sorting? If a kid finds that easy (or develops it early), does it follow that they will find later maths easy?

PSG B: and vice versa, if they find it difficult… ?

Vic: Children who are struggling with these skills early on may struggle learning more complex number skills. BUT it’s not inevitable!

What we know is that these early number skills are highly predictive of future learning. In our most recent study children in preschool who had these skills showed greater learning gains when they entered primary school.

PSG A: Is that greater learning gains in maths subjects or across the board?

Vic: We have only looked at mathematical achievement. But work in the USA suggests that children’s early maths skills is highly predictive of achievement across the board.

Q: Hi ?. What is your preterm work focusing on?

Vic: Specifically, why do children who were born preterm appear to have increased difficulties in mathematical achievement.

PSG E: How much preterm? And is there a relationship between the length of gestation and learning maths ability?

Vic: We are focused on children born less than 32 weeks gestation (so very preterm).

PSG F: What can parents do in the home environment to help mathematical learning? Specifically for prem babies. I had a 30 week-er myself so very interested to know.

PSG D: Any conclusions? Does it link to any other needs which the preterm baby might have?

Vic: Yes – we have reported that very preterm children MAY (not always) struggle with memory and spatial skills – these issues seems to underly their problems with maths.

Q: Isn’t it a self-selecting success though? Parents who have a more easy and successful experience with maths are more likely to enjoy math-centric games with their kids and so on?

Vic: There is an issue with this. Parents who report having high mathematical anxiety also report doing less mathematical activities with their children.

PSG C: This is me, but after watching your interview I want to stop passing on my anxiety and instead helping my 31 month old

Vic: I think that by even banning ourselves from saying things like “I can’t do numbers” or “I didn’t like maths at school either” is a really good first step.

PSG E: Or good ol’ Barbie “maths is hard!”

Q: How much does parents’ fear, or love, affect a child’s interest in maths? In the early years?

Vic: Parents who report having high mathematical anxiety also report doing less mathematical activities with their children. We know that parents positive and negative attitudes are highly influential!

PSG J: Oh that sounds like a high bar to overcome! Are there alternative strategies that break the cycle?

Vic: Yes it really is- and unfortunately we haven’t cracked that yet. What we did find in a recent study was that parents who reported not enjoying maths were trying to overcome this using some simple tablet games with their kids – it increased their confidence and helped them support their children’s learning.

PSG I: So, rather than focus on the kids’ experience of maths, we should upskill the parents?

Vic: I think a two-pronged approach would be a really good idea!

Q: Any recommended books or games (not video games) for making maths part of the day?

Vic: It really depends on what age group the child is in. We encourage everyday opportunities for basic number skills- such as counting steps, weighing ingredients, laying the table. Shape and space are also really important- so jigsaw puzzle playing is a great skill for basic geometry.

PSG K: Why not video games? Just curious because my son loved them for letters and numbers

PSG E: Only because I have a 2 and 4yo and I’m trying to limit screen time. Plus I’m thinking more of what to incorporate into the day, e.g. counting steps, laying the table – these are great.

PSG C: What can I be doing with a 2 or 3 year old Vic Simms?

PSG I: Trying to think of all the things we used to do – playing with dominoes (not necessarily a ‘proper’ game, but matching numbers

One called ‘slap it’ with circles with the numbers 2-12 on, roll 2 dice, first person to slap tge correct total wins…

Following recipes is always good

PSG E: We’re learning ‘half’, ‘quarter’, etc, by making cakes. Then cutting in half, quarters… So much cake, it’s a hard life.

Vic: I would be focusing on everyday opportunities- such as pairing up objects, counting steps, measuring quantities- using very basic mathematical language in order to increase exposure to this type of information. Shape and space are very important at this age- so jigsaw puzzles and block building are great basic skills to help early numeracy.

PSG I: I quite like pattern following – eg copy my duplo, string beads in a pattern, but don’t know if that counts as maths

Vic: Yes definitely- pattern making is a precursor maths skill

PSG L: I know you said not screen time – but my LO loves Umi-zoomies videos and learns loads of maths terminology / skills from it.

PSG B: Do you have any recommended resources around the developmental stages children usually acquire these concepts?

Vic: Oooh- I think I have a good chart……. Here it is – it’s not exactly what I remembered, but still interesting I think.

PSG M: Very interested to see this!

Q: Any thoughts on video games, though, since they’ve been mentioned? School have just signed my 6 yr old up to He’s obsessed. Would probably play it all day every day if I’d let him (but he already enjoyed maths).

Vic: I don’t know this game at all, so I don’t think I can comment. We know that there are some good game-based learning tools out there.

But we just completed a big review of interventions to help maths learning and the most shocking finding was that there are really nearly no good trials of commercially available products. The evidence base for lots of interventions have really not been rigorously tested!

PSG I: Wow. That’s a shame. I’d be fascinated.

My experience of watching him (and now his older sister too) play it over the past 3 weeks is surprisingly positive – it responds to his answering of questions, so it continues to challenge him (and introduces topics that he may not yet have come across – vectors and time are two I’ve noticed, but in a way which he can work it out). It can reward achievement eg 20-50 correct answers gives him an in-game reward.

Q: As far as I’m aware, we introduce formal schooling earlier than in other European countries with worse educational outcomes. I’m trying to match this with my preschooler’s natural interest in counting to 100 and starting to do addition. Is it a case of following the interests of the child?

Vic: Yes definitely. Child centred all the way. Interestingly in a study that we are trying publish at the minute we compared kids in NI, England, Belgium and Finland and found no between country differences in maths skills. Turns out that parents in countries where kids start school later parents are doing lots of formal maths learning with their children!

PSG N: Wow, how interesting!

Q: How do researchers looking at early language development feel about your work? Do they find that kids who should early ability in reading/writing have more positive academic outcomes? Would they rather parents were supporting vocabulary development and reading complex language books? ?

PSG B: Good question! and to Vic’s earlier point, how can you really separate numeracy and language – they have such high overlap?

Vic: What I find interesting is that research in maths development consistently finds that children’s vocabulary is really important for maths learning.

Interestingly, when I speak to language researchers we find lots of common ground!

PSG B: Is this because so much of early maths is presented as language-based problems? Eg two oranges take away one orange?

I’m interested in the overlapping areas of language disorders and maths disorders… on a personal note I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia, but I am very strong in maths that doesn’t involve numbers! algebra, geometry…

Vic: Yes, that is a factor. Lots of early assessments of maths skills has lots of complex language. In fact, a researcher in the USA, David Purpura, has reported that mathematical language skills is predictive of later complex language skills – they interact!

This is a really important point- the overlap between dyslexia and dyscalculia is very high. In fact, a number of researchers now claim that there is no such thing as “pure” dyscalculia- they have to go hand in hand.

PSG E: Isn’t maths essentially a language?

Vic: Yes, a very beautiful one!

Q: My 4yo is very much a pattern-thinker, he is autistic, and his tendency to lock on to patterns make standard sort of preschool learning strategies not a good fit for him, as he will pick up on the patterns of games, puzzles, etc, and not the symbols (letters, numerals). Is this something you have ever come across?

Vic: Umm.. When I think about your scenario it may make sense if your son has some difficulties with language. Linking symbols- words, digits and quantities is very language dependent.

PSG O: Yes, he has a speech delay, language delay, and also difficulties with receptive language. He is very bright, but also quite classically autistic, so very much working to his own agenda. We have been trying to approach maths learning through other ways, but I was curious as to what research there might be that would apply. For example, using play that builds on spatial skills or directional language, or hands-on play with quantities and volumes.

I’m wondering how directly those might tie into later abilities in numeracy.

Vic: Yes- there is some really nice work by people in UCL Emily Farran and Katie Gilligan looking at the influence of spatial skills on mathematical learning- this really suggests that focusing on spatial skills can be a successful way to learn numeracy skills

PSG O: I shall look that up, thank you.

Q: I’ve been following the work of Jo Boaler at Stamford. She’s very interested in attitudes to maths and supports the need for a growth mindset as advocated by Carole Dweck. Does your research touch on attitudes at all?

Vic: I don’t really do a lot about attitudes- I do look at maths anxiety. I don’t do any work on growth mindsets!

Q: Do you think there are children who are inherently more interested in maths, or do you think it’s all about the opportunities and attitudes around them?

I always loved maths as a child and my 4 year old is really interested in numbers. He has selected a lot of the learning himself (he has a tablet that he can select videos and games and often chooses those with a number focus) and I don’t feel like I’ve guided him, although I do encourage counting and discussion about numbers. I feel like I’ve been following his interest but is it likely that I’ve been pushing him that way and not realising?

Vic: Wow! What you’ve said is really interesting. So, we found in a recent survey that lots of children drive the mathematical environment that they are in – they initiate these activities.

There is a whole body of research on a topic called SFON – spontaneous focusing on number.

PSG E: What does that look like? When the child drives the activity… They start playing games with patterns? They ask about mathematical stuff?

Vic: Yes exactly- they are ones dragging you to the stairs and making you count- or playing with patterns and engaging YOU

Basically, SFON looks at whether kids spontaneously seek out maths info in their environment. There is a suggestion that kids that do this get to practice with numbers more, leading to better maths skills when they are older.

PSG K: My son used to spot ‘nummers’ and wanted to go on a counting app on my phone a lot.

PSG O: My 2nd learned to count, bilingually, on her own, and still likes me to “skip count” her to sleep. 🙂

PSG E: My kids randomly start counting things. It’s kind of hilarious sometimes just waiting for them to finish counting something on a page before we can move in the book ?

PSG K: Ooh what’s skip counting?

PSG O: Counting by multiples.

Vic: That is lovely!

PSG R: I wonder this too. I am a touch maths-phobic and not confident around numbers; however my pre-schooler has always loved, sought out and been very good with numbers. Interestingly he also has a speech delay. It often felt (feels) that he ‘got’ numbers and then would use this as a way to communicate (he recognised he was being understood when doing number-based activity). I think then this has compounded his interest in numbers more so.

Vic: Yes – it’s very circular – he gets a kick out of doing something well – he wants to do more – just keep encouraging and engaging in these activities!

PSG Q: That (SFON) sounds exactly like my son. He’s shown an interest in numbers from very early on and learned to read numbers through his own activities (I’m assuming from his tablet). I was really surprised when, at the age of 2, he could accurately read numbers and assumed that nursery had taught him, but when I checked with them they told me they didn’t start doing that till 3. And I can see how his interest would lead to additional “practice” and therefore competence etc.

Vic: Yup- it’s quite amazing- I think we often think that we are creating environments for our kids- in fact they are doing just as much of this themselves!

Q: I find it fascinating that my 4yo ‘sees’ maths like I do (I’m an academic too) and lays out problems we give him physically and nothing like how he is being taught in reception. In the same way as parents are told to teach at home the same way as at school (phonics) I worry whether I should allow him to develop this interest or focus more on counting.

By which I mean is there an established method for early years as there is with phonics?

Vic: This is one of the big issues – there is no real agreed way to teach maths – we don’t have a phonics equivalent.

PSG I: Our school likes the ‘maths mastery’ approach ie there isn’t just one way to solve a maths problem – there are multiple equally valid approaches. I respect that. They teach multiple ways to look at the same thing and then let the kids solve them as they see fit.

Vic: Yes- kids who have confidence to use different strategies in the right situation show better complex mathematical problem solving. But they also need to know basic maths facts to be able to do the complex activities.

Q: You say you’re working on “the impact of immersion schooling on maths understanding”. Please could I ask – what’s immersion schooling? And – what is it’s effect on maths understanding?

Vic: In Northern Ireland kids can go to Irish language or English language schools- we are looking at how this may impact on learning in a sample of kids in NI and our collaborators in Canada look at the same effect in French language schools

PSG O: Interesting. French immersion is a common choice for primarily English-speaking families where I come from.

PSG T: I see! (I think!) So the immersion bit is to do with the language of the school? What impact do you expect you might see on maths?

Vic: We predict it may assist in learning basic number skills in the long run as kids have additional information to increase their understanding of basic concepts (I don’t know if I’ve explained that very well).

PSG O: That will be interesting to see – many bilingual families i know worry about the mental work of 2 languages limiting or delaying children’s learning.

Vic: Yes- and especially bilingual families with kids with SEN. We can’t wait to analyse our data!

PSG O: I must remember to follow up on how it turns out!

Vic: Please do!!

Q: I’ve always enjoyed learning maths (sciencey family!) and teaching it to my kids.

But I’m aware so many people hate maths!! What are we getting wrong in the way we teach maths to kids? Are we (i.e. schools, society) guilty of making a fascinating subject boring?

Do you have any tips for parents (and schools?) on how to make maths engaging for kids?

Vic: I think there are a number of things at play, culturally we don’t value numbers as much as we do words – it’s ok to be bad at maths, but not ok to be bad at reading.

Changes in the NI and Scottish curriculum to focus on play-based learning should hopefully encourage children to develop a love for numbers. This play-based approach is really important to help maintain enjoyment

PSG E: I’m no expert, but remembering why I struggled with school-based maths even though I love maths and am now an analyst… No-one was telling me how this maths concept related to “life” or anything practical… it was all too abstract. So for me, I will try to ‘ground’ the maths for my kids.

Vic: That is sooooo important- and I think that’s why problem solving and play based activate keep kids interest in maths- they can see how it can help them out!

PSG B: I think there’s also something extra in the ‘ok to be bad at maths’ thing, where people who have a significant issue get overlooked, where if it was the same severity in writing or spelling they’d get identified for help.

Vic: Yes definitely true. When we are working with teachers they recognise that kids who are struggling may not get help – one reason is the lack of good interventions. BUT also – a real focus on reading over numbers.

PSG I: And traditionally nowhere near enough focus on how maths can be fun!

Vic: Yes- and when I do observational work and you are in a classroom in which a teacher loves maths you can see how much fun it can be!

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your research on maths anxiety? Is it caused by a kind of underlying problem with maths skills? Or something to do with the way it’s been taught?

Vic: That’s still a really open question- that we are currently working on. It’s really difficult to work out if maths anxiety is an outcome of poor maths skills- or maths anxiety causes people to avoid practicing maths – leading to poorer outcomes. it probably is a bit of both.

PSG M: Million dollar question, how can we best protect our children from maths anxiety?

Vic: WOW! First of all expressing positive attitudes ourselves.

Trying to encourage children to reflect positively on their experiences with numbers – associating maths learning with clever uses of strategies and problem solving rather than having to state correct answers quickly (thought this is an important skill).

PSG I: My son hates showing his working – likes to rub it out! He sees it as cheating! Even though school and I are both very clear that it’s the strategy we care about, as much as, if not more than the right answer!

Vic: Oh my- I would be telling him that being able to see how his clever mind works is REALLY important and we all write things down to help our brains solve problems

PSG I: Yup. Keep saying that (and other versions of it again and again) until he eventually listens!

Q: Are the activities you suggested also good for improving spatial awareness and working memory? Or are there other resources for that? Or can they be improved in a child (thereby improving their ability to do maths)? (Hoping I picked that up correctly in your interview)

Vic: One thing that we see in a wide body of research is that training working memory skills doesn’t seem to lead to gains in maths skills. What we suggest is that using these practical activities decreases the amount of load on working memory – freeing up thinking space for kids to do more complex problem solving.

Letting kids count on their fingers is a good thing as it decreases working memory load, for example!

Q: Can I ask about teaching methods? I went to a Steiner school and my initial maths education was very imaginative and creative, drawing gnomes mining gems with holes in their baskets to demonstrate subtraction/ addition etc my dad used to do animated demos. I was doing my sisters algebra homework when I was about 7.

Should we take the lead on HOW our children learn or is creative/ practical always best with young kids?

Vic: Yes- a creative approach can be useful- but also we recognise that from our research some maths fact learning and basic procedures are really important too – it’s getting the right balance.

Q: My son has just started school and we are being told to make sure children touch objects as they are counting. I thought being able to look at a group of objects and identify how many is also important? It feels like we’re almost being asked to go backwards at this point.

Vic: Yes –  being able to look at a set and label them with the right number word is an absolutely fascinating skill- it’s called subitizing. But what the teachers are probably trying to get your son to do is recognise the importance of one-to-one correspondence – every item in the set has a unique number word- it means that if really gets this he can do counting in any circumstance!

PSG K: I think he probably already has this. Do I need to practice at home or just do what we usually do?

Vic: I would encourage a wide range of skills- so playing games that makes him adapt his strategies is a good idea!

PSG K: I feel like it’s because they want to start everyone from the same place?

PSG I: Might be that they’re concerned that he’s guessing, or wanting to encourage a systematic approach? I know both of mine (and IIRC, I did the same) suddenly became a little overconfident and stopped being systematic and errors crept in.

Vic: Wow. That was amazing – thanks so much for the opportunity and the amazing questions.

Chorus of thank yous…..

PSG M: This has been totally fascinating. I could keep going all night! Thank you so much for talking to us Vic, and for doing such interesting and important work.

Vic: We have a new FB page at Ulster for our Kidslab research – so I will be posting the cool results we get from our research program- if anyone is interested!

If you’ve enjoyed this Q&A, why not check out some of our previous sessions:

You can find all our session on the Q&A page of our website.

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