Kindergartners participating in a Johns Hopkins study demonstrated increased math performance after exercising their intuitive number sense with a computer game.

“Math ability is not static—it’s not the case that if you’re bad at math, you’re bad at it the rest of your life. It’s not only changeable, it can be changeable in a very short period of time,” said Jinjing “Jenny” Wang, a graduate student in the Krieger School of Arts and Science’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “We used a five-minute game to change kids’ math performance.”

Humans and animals are born with an intuitive sense of quantities and can demonstrate this knowledge as infants, researchers said. For instance, when presented with a choice between a plate with a few crackers and another with more of them, even a baby will gravitate to the option with more. This intuition about number is called the “approximate number system.”

Watch a video of the math research in action.

Although this primitive sense of number is imprecise, and therefore quite different than the numerical exactitude of mathematics, studies have shown the two abilities are linked. For instance, researchers from this same research group have demonstrated that a strong gut sense of approximate number can predict school math ability. But until now, no one has shown that grooming that gut sense could make a child better at math.

Next page: Can improved intuitive number ability lead to improved math ability?