Should children learn maths skills at a younger age?
1 expert has answered
The short version: Yes, kids can benefit from working on mathematical thinking. This doesn't mean drilling on addition/subtraction, though. Helping children learn to count, notice numbers at work in the world, and understand the relationships among different aspects of number (e.g., number as size, number as a place in an ordered sequence) can be a great way to kick-start a trajectory of high achievement.
The long version (with some research references): Children can certainly cultivate their mathematical thinking from a young age. In fact, the foundations of mathematical thinking are already present in infants: They can, for example, tell that something fishy is going on when an experimenter puts up a screen, places two dolls behind the screen, and then lifts the screen to reveal three dolls instead of the expected two (research by Wynn).
Furthermore, research has shown that children who have not spent their early years focusing on numeracy skills are at a strong disadvantage coming into school and that this disadvantage can persist through schooling. Such children, for instance, might memorize "math facts" such as "4 + 3 = 7" but not understand that 4 is bigger than 3 or that 7 is bigger than both 4 and 3 (research by Griffin, Case, and Seigler).
Now, this is not to suggest that we should be drilling toddlers on math facts. The kinds of work that kids should be doing with mathematical thinking are things like establishing basic counting principles. A child who can recite, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5," does not automatically understand that this set of sounds reflects anything about magnitude, for instance, any more than would the set of sounds, "A, B, C, D, E." Kids need to build up what has been called a "central conceptual structure" for numbers (Griffin, Case, and Seigler), linking together concepts like - magnitude (more and less, bigger and smaller) - cardinality (how many things are in a set) - ordinality (third in line comes after second in line) - incrementing/decrementing operations (getting from one number to its neighbor by adding or subtracting one)
There are also basic counting principles (research by Gelman and Gallistel) that children have to come to embrace: - When counting, numbers always proceed in the same order - When counting, later numbers represent larger quantities than earlier numbers - When counting, the final number spoken represents the "cardinality" of the set (the number of, say, cookies that are on the plate) - When counting, any number can be applied to any member of the set (e.g., we could count the cookies clockwise or top-to-bottom and still come up with the same number of cookies) - Anything can be counted: cookies, people, sounds, ideas, etc.
Finally, there is research on "SFON" (spontaneous focusing on number, research by Hannula-Sormunen) suggesting that children who notice numbers in the world--by counting, by observing order and size, etc--tend to perform better in academic mathematical contexts. We aren't certain that helping children cultivate these skills will help, but my personal opinion is that it's a good idea.