Intuition helps preschoolers do basic algebra

Intuition helps preschoolers do basic algebra

Remember trying to solve for x and y in high school algebra? Does algebra still have you stumped? It may have something to do with how old you are and how in tune you are with your instincts. According to a new study, a preschooler or kindergartner might have an easier time than you did learning at least the basic concepts of algebra.

A new study published online in March in the journal Developmental Science revealed that most children between the ages of 4 and 6 can intuitively do basic algebra. Researchers said in a statement that children were able to do this by using something called the approximate number system (ANS) or “their gut-level, inborn sense of quantity and number.”

ANS, which is sometimes also referred to as number sense, describes humans’ and animals’ ability to quickly assess the number of objects in their everyday environments. All humans are born with ANS, researchers said, and it stems from an evolutionary adaptation that was used to help humans and animals survive in the wild.

Past research around ANS has uncovered that teens with solid math abilities also had higher number sense as preschoolers, and by age 35, number sense peaks.

To test children’s algebra abilities, researchers used two stuffed animals—Cheetah and Gator—and so-called magic cups filled with objects including buttons, pennies and plastic doll shoes to demonstrate an algebra problem.

Cheetah and Gator had an unknown number of objects in each cup, and participants were not allowed to see how many objects were in each cup. They only saw a pile of objects on a table. Participants were told that each character’s cup would “magically” add to the pile on the table so it was up to the participants to determine how many items were in Cheetah’s cup and Gator’s cup.

The researchers pretended to mix up the cups and after revealing what was in one of the character’s cups, they asked participants to figure out who the cup belonged to.

“What was in the cup was the x and y variable, and children nailed it,” said lead study author Lisa Feigenson, director of the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development in Baltimore. “Gator’s cup was the x variable and Cheetah’s cup was the y variable. We found out that young children are very, very good at this. It appears that they are harnessing their gut-level number sense to solve this task,” said Feigenson.

Since the participants were solving for a missing quantity, they were essentially performing basic algebra.

So if it’s so easy a preschooler can do it, then why do teens and even adults suffer endlessly with algebra?

“One possibility is that formal algebra relies on memorized rules and symbols that seem to trip many people up,” Feigenson said. “So one of the exciting future directions for this research is to ask whether telling teachers that children have this gut-level ability—long before they master the symbols—might help in encouraging students to harness these skills. Teachers may be able to help children master these kinds of computations earlier, and more easily, giving them a wedge into the system,” she added.

Related Posts



  1. cordelia_79720 May 16, 2014 at 2:23 am · Reply

    Approximating is a good skill…but it must be handled carefuly lest student lose the sense of the need for the precise answer and do the algebraic/calculus reuired to get the exact answer .

  2. Ryan Lim Zhi Yan August 29, 2014 at 11:56 pm · Reply

    Wow! So young kids start algebra???

Subscribe to health enews newsletter

About the Author

health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.