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Lab Harnesses the Power of Play to Boost Mathematic Achievement in Preschoolers

By Colby Gallagher

Published on September 23, 2019

It isn’t uncommon to hear the sound of children laughing while calling out numbers, followed by an enthusiastic, “good job!” as you near the lab of Vinaya Rajan PhD, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience. Though it has the traditional sounds of an elementary school classroom, its true students are in college, learning developmental psychology research through the Cognition, Learning, and School Success (CLASS) lab run by Dr. Rajan.

“We focus on cognitive development, the development of memory and early mathematics learning in early childhood, with a particular focus on the preschool years,” said Dr. Rajan.

Those years, ages three to five, are important because research shows a link between children’s early math and numeracy skills and later achievement in math and reading, she said.

“Some of our investigations are looking at what are the important skills that might help support early mathematics,” said Dr. Rajan. “There’s a rich literature that talks about executive function skills, which are children’s ability to hold information in mind, to be able to follow rules, to be able to maybe inhibit an impulsive action. These executive function skills depend on the prefrontal cortex, which undergoes remarkable development during the preschool years and are closely linked to early mathematics abilities."

One of the projects, funded by the Spencer Foundation, examines the power of play to improve early math skills. The Spencer Foundation granted Dr. Rajan $50,000 in support of her research examining early math learning. 

To support her work, Dr. Rajan turned to students who help to run the experiments while gaining valuable research experience.

“I have been trained on test administration, data collection, data entry, and got a little into advertising as well,” said Angeli Thomas Bio’20.

To find research subjects, Dr. Rajan, Thomas, and the other students invited local parents and their children into the lab for testing. They also visited daycare centers and schools to perform tests on-site.

Angeli Thomas Bio'20 in the CLASS Lab run by Dr. Vinaya Rajan“I was interested in this specific research because of the population that Dr. Rajan works with,” said Thomas, a pre-health student who aspires to become a pediatrician. “Children are definitely an impressionable age and their early math and learning abilities is something that I wanted to investigate with her.”

Children are tested before going through four sessions of games; they’re then tested again to gauge if certain skills are enhanced after only a couple of interventions.

During the sessions, the lab looks for a child’s ability to count and link a specific number to an object quantity; for example: instead of playing memory with two identical numbers, one card will say three and its match will have three items.

Once the skills that support numeracy and mathematic achievement are identified, Dr. Rajan said solutions can be created.

“If we can target specific interventions that can help boost early math, that has profound implications for parents and educators,” said Dr. Rajan. “We’re hoping that we can reinforce that message that play equals learning during these early years and they can learn important concepts about math in a fun, interactive environment.”

As a Philadelphia native, Thomas is invested in the research and its potential implications.

“I hope this data helps teachers with interventions, helping children with learning disabilities, and learning disadvantages in those communities.”

Categories: News, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Psychology, Students, Research, Neuroscience