A recent study just published in the journal Developmental Science looked at the ability of children aged between 4 and 6 to do basic algebra.  It was discovered that children of these ages, before any formal lessons have been taught, have a natural ability to do basic algebra. They used the “Approximate Number System” or “number sense” which is one’s natural ability to estimate the magnitude of a group without relying on language or symbols.  Our innate ANS is said to probably be an evolutionary adaptation which helped humans to survive in the wild.

What is interesting is that if a 4 or 5 year old has a natural ability to do basic algebra then why do so many of us, as teens and throughout adulthood struggle with algebra?

Perhaps it is the way in which algebra is introduced in schools and the age at which we begin teaching it. Knowing that younger children will naturally tap into their ANS should encourage introducing algebraic concepts into schooling from a much earlier age. Algebra could be taught from early primary and should be called algebra when it is taught so that both students and parents know that they are able to do algebra. Establishing a concrete understanding of the basic concepts can ease the transition into the abstract sense for many children. Perhaps if teachers were more aware of students’ innate ability this might motivate them to harness their skills.

People often shudder when the word algebra is mentioned and many students become quite nervous in early high school when the teacher informs them that it’s the next topic they’ll be studying. As teachers, parents and the wider community we need to abolish this unjustified fear of algebra. If you struggled with it at school, your child may not struggle, but if they are afraid before they begin learning they are already starting on the wrong foot.

It is important to nurture and support young children’s natural ‘number sense’ so that these skills can be developed when solving problems and then built on when formal education starts. There are many ways you can harness your child’s maths skills beyond teaching them to count. We have lots of ideas for teaching spatial awareness, geometry, probability, measurement and number skills. You can start nurturing your children’s ANS from babies, to toddlers, pre-schoolers and right through school. Get them interested and excited about maths from day 1!