Teaching your baby math and science

Yes, babies can get a kickstart in learning — we talked to Dr Robert C Titzer, who has conducted published research on baby learning.

Teaching your baby math and science

What are your views on bilingualism? How best should children learn more than one language?

If the parents are fluent in English and Mandarin, then they should speak both languages; [however] parents should speak in complete thoughts in each language and try to avoid mixing the two languages within a sentence or thought.

Parents can use videos or other resources to supplement their own efforts to teach the languages. For example, our videos have more than 10,000 spoken words in the sentences. This can help the child to hear native speakers using proper grammar to learn language skills.

And a recent study shows that bilingual infants learn just as many patterns in English as monolingual infants who only learn English [to address fears that learning a second language might “cut” learning in the first language].

Is there a specific age window in which or from which babies learn best? How do we know that they are learning?

It depends on what is being learned. For language skills, earlier is generally better; The window of opportunity for learning language skills is often thought to be from about birth to about age 4.

[We know they are learning because] infant researchers have devised numerous tests to determine if babies have learned. For example, in studies, we can check infants’ looking times to determine if they can differentiate objects or events. Parents are often very good at determining if their babies have learned something.

Children often have short attention spans for learning tasks in front of them. How can parents work around this issue?

If the task is interesting for the child, then the child can have a very long attention span. Learning should be fun and engaging for the child. If the child is doing some type of boring worksheet, then the child may quickly become bored. Parents can solve the problem by finding more entertaining and engaging educational materials.

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Will a baby show preferences in what they want to/can learn? How do parents work with that as a strength?

Yes, babies will show preferences, but there are also environmental factors: How the topics or information is presented can make a large difference as well. If parents present the information in a very interesting way, the baby will generally be more interested in learning.

Some babies may be more visual learners while other babies may be more auditory or physical learners. If parents present the information in a fun, multi-sensory way then that should help their babies regardless of what type of learner they may be.

At what age should children be able to learn counting, addition and subtraction?

Rarely do parents do many math activities with babies, so most babies have very little understanding of adding or subtracting. The typical way of teaching the concept of the number 2 involves showing a baby the numeral 2 and two objects. However, research shows that babies would perceive that as three objects (the numeral 2 plus two more objects). This means that the typical approach for learning language skills is not based on infant-perception studies and it isn’t ideal for infants. If infants learned based on how they naturally perceive objects, then they could learn more easily. Our series Your Child Can Discover uses this approach to help very young children learn math skills (along with pitch in music, geometric shapes, logic patterns, prepositions, and 96 colours).

Parents can start applying math skills during infancy. For example, if babies or toddlers are eating food that can be cut into pieces, parents can ask their toddlers how they want their food cut. They may cut it in halves, thirds, fourths, and they can describe to their baby what they are doing. After the toddler learns all of those, they can make it much more interesting by cutting it in one half plus two fourths and many other combinations.

I once asked my own toddler how she wanted her food cut and she excitedly said that she wanted one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth, and two-sixteenths! Because parents are cutting their children’s food daily, it adds up to a lot of learning over many months. This is only one of many activities that parents can do.

One of the biggest challenges governments have is trying to get children to learn to apply numeracy skills in everyday life. How can parents or teachers help that?

Again, infants are generally not taught math skills in a manner that matches infant perception studies. Research indicates that governments get a much greater return on their investment in education in the first three years of a child’s life, but the vast majority of all spending toward education is after the age of 6. Remember that about 90 per cent of the brain is developed by age 5, so possibly governments want to consider investing more time, energy, and money in the early years of a child’s life when it is easier to help them learn math or other skills.

Has the type of literacy skills children need to pick up information changed in this digital age? What is the greatest challenge now?

The type of reading may be transitioning from physical books to digital forms, but reading may be even more important than ever because of the quantity of information available to children. They need to learn how to learn since it is possible for children to easily learn about virtually any topic.

If the child learns to read very quickly as well as very quickly scanning information, then the child will have opportunities to efficiently learn about almost anything.

One of the greatest challenges for parents is to not take the easy path of showing their babies entertainment-based apps or video games while their brains are developing so rapidly. Since about 90 per cent of the child’s brain is developed in the first five years, the more the child learns in these earlier years, the more likely the child will do well in school.

A meta-analysis of six longitudinal studies found that the best predictor for how well a child will do academically at the end of secondary school was how well was the child doing on the first day of school. It was not the parents’ IQs or socio-economic status, or which school the child attended.

This means what parents do with their children the first five years of life is extremely important for the long-term academic success of their children.

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