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Can computers teach babies to count?

[Mar. 12, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

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In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the use of technology in education, including for very young children. One area of particular interest is whether or not computers can effectively teach babies how to count.

The question of whether computers can teach babies to count is a complex and multifaceted one. While there are certainly arguments in favor of using technology to support early math learning, there are also concerns about the potential drawbacks of this approach.


The case for using computers to teach counting

Proponents of using computers to teach counting to babies argue that technology can be an effective tool for helping children learn basic math concepts. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. First, computers can provide children with a highly interactive and engaging learning experience. Many educational apps and games designed for young children use bright colors, fun animations, and interactive elements that can capture a child's attention and make learning more enjoyable.

Second, computers can provide children with immediate feedback on their progress. When a child completes a task or activity on a computer, they can receive immediate feedback on whether they have done it correctly or not. This can help children to learn more quickly and effectively, as they can adjust their approach based on the feedback they receive.


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Third, computers can provide children with personalized learning experiences. Many educational apps and games are designed to adapt to a child's individual learning style and pace. This means that children can progress through the material at their own speed and receive extra help or challenges as needed.

Past and present research in the space

There are several research studies that suggest using computers to teach counting to babies can be effective. For example, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that infants as young as six months old could learn to associate a number of objects with a corresponding numeral after being exposed to a computerized counting game.


The researchers found that the infants who played the game were more likely to look at a screen showing the correct number of objects than a screen showing an incorrect number. This suggests that the infants had learned to associate the numeral with the corresponding quantity of objects, even though they were too young to verbally count or understand the concept of numbers.

Similarly, a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that infants who played a computerized counting game for just five minutes a day for two weeks showed improved math skills compared to infants who did not play the game. The researchers found that the infants who played the game showed improved skills in recognizing numbers, counting, and understanding basic math concepts.


Jinjing Jenny Wang, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, just conducted a two-year study to investigate whether infants benefit cognitively from watching someone count out loud on screen as opposed to in person. She was prompted to carry out the study after observing how her own daughter reacted to a counting video at the age of 10 months. While some experts believed such videos would not work, her daughter reacted positively, prompting the study.

Wang's research involved 81 babies aged between 14 and 19 months old. The babies watched a video that showed pictures of toy cars and pigs, followed by someone counting out loud, before the toys were hidden in a box. The babies were more attentive and focused when the box was lifted and some of the objects disappeared, compared to when there was no counting and just pointing in the video. The study, which was published in Developmental Psychology, suggests that babies can benefit from counting videos if they are designed to resemble real life and engage them.

Wang also believes that the use of counting videos could reduce disparities in children's exposure to counting in person from caregivers, particularly if there are barriers preventing in-person counting. However, she cautions that future research needs to be carried out to examine potential negative consequences of screen exposure. Her research is part of her broader investigation into how babies perceive the world, learn their first words and numbers, and how these perceptual and learning abilities support children's later cognitive development.

Wang's research was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and all analysis was carried out virtually, with Rutgers-New Brunswick student researchers reviewing webcam videos of the babies. The study has promising implications for how technology can be used to support early childhood learning, but she stresses that more research is needed to determine the appropriate amount of screen time for babies and potential negative effects.


Finding a Balance

So where does this leave parents and educators who are interested in using technology to teach counting to babies? Ultimately, it seems that finding a balance is key. While there are certainly some potential benefits to using computers and other technology to support early math learning, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks as well.

One approach that many experts recommend is to use technology as one tool among many in a broader learning environment. For example, parents might use educational apps or games to supplement other activities like reading books, playing with toys, or engaging in face-to-face interactions with caregivers and peers. Similarly, educators might use computer-based activities as part of a broader curriculum that also includes hands-on activities, group discussions, and other forms of learning.

Another key consideration is the quality of the technology being used. Not all educational apps or games are created equal, and it is important to carefully evaluate the content, design, and effectiveness of any technology that is being used to support early math learning. Parents and educators should look for apps and games that are age-appropriate, engaging, and effective, and that align with the broader goals of early math education.

Finally, it is important to remember that technology should never be a substitute for human connection and interaction. While computers and other devices can be a useful tool for supporting early math learning, they should never replace the importance of face-to-face interactions with caregivers, peers, and educators.


Parents and educators should be mindful of the potential risks of overreliance on technology and work to ensure that children have plenty of opportunities for social interaction and human connection as well.

For more science stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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