Child mathematics

A mathematical genius..? What parents can do

Tuesday, 16 September, 2014

In a recent study, Dr. Joanne Lee and colleagues from Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada, investigated early mathematics learning during the first 3 years of life. Because numerous studies already provide evidence of the importance of gesture use, Lee and her team specially focused on examining specific types of gestures produced by parents in math-related talk.

Finger counting

Lee and colleagues hypothesized that finger counting gestures help to bridge the gap between nonverbal and verbal systems of number learning. To examine this relationship, the researchers gathered a group of children between 12 and 30 months of age, which appears to be a transitional period between the preverbal and verbal stages of child language development. At this point, toddlers are just beginning to understand the fundamental meaning of number words such as “one.”

Filming ‘home’ videos

To collect data, 30-minute play sessions were arranged at the homes of the children, during which parent-child interactions were recorded. A portable system enabled the researchers to work with two cameras using a remote control in a separate room from the parent–child dyad. To ensure high audio quality, the participants wore unobtrusive wireless microphones. This arrangement ensured that the play sessions appeared as naturalistic as possible.

Coding utterances and gestures

Using The Observer XT program, the researchers coded the number-related speech and gestures in each video. Each play session was first coded for math-related utterances, such as counting, ordering numbers, and ordering objects. The coders then made a note of each time an utterance was accompanied by a gesture. After careful review of the videos, Lee et al. identified 10 types of “math” or “number” gestures and coded each occurrence for all the parent-child dyads. Only gestures associated with math-related talk were analyzed; any other movements were ignored.


In total number of math-related gesticulations, 456 and 171 instances were produced by parent and child, respectively, in a 30-minute period. The researchers summarize that the most frequently occurring gestures were: collecting/grouping items in an array, counting objects while numbering, tapping/touching, holding objects up, and pointing at an item. Not surprisingly, the five gesture types most often seen in the children mimicked those of their parents, although the number of instances of each type differed. Parents initiated significantly more gestures than did the children; in contrast, children responded with more gestures to math-related talk than did their parents. These findings suggest that in general, parents use a specific set of movements to incorporate math learning during play with their toddlers. Lee and colleagues look back on their project and describe their research as representing a step in further defining parents’ gestures in math-related speech, and shining important insight into toddlers’ learning patterns of language and mathematics.

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  • Lee, J.; Kotsopoulos, D.; Tumber, A.; Makosz, S. (2014). Gesturing about number sense. Journal of Early Childhood Research, DOI: 10.1177/1476718X13510914.