Museum of Science, Boston

Math and Language Cognition

Language and math are important tools that allow humans to better understand the world around them, and communicate with one another. Some cognitive scientists are interested in learning more about how children develop language skills and conceptions about basic math principles, and how the development of math and language skills in early childhood might be interrelated.


Do children understand multiplication before they learn about it in school?

This research explores children’s instincts about multiplication before they learn about it in school.

In this study, children ages 5 and older are presented with two cartoon characters, each playing with their own set of marbles on a computer screen. The first character is very organized, and has the same number of marbles stored in each of their buckets. The second character is very unorganized and keeps their marbles scattered on the floor. The children are asked to guess which character has more marbles.

The results thus far have shown that children as young as 5 do seem to have an instinct about multiplication that helps them to estimate numbers. Children are able to indicate which character has more marbles, showing that they understand something about multiplication even before learning about it in school.

In the future, our findings may help educational programs define an appropriate time to introduce particular math concepts to children.

Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.

This research is conducted by the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University

Try it at the Museum

Multiplying Magnets

Are there more washers or rings in the Magnet Box located on the Second Floor of the Discovery Center?

Try to figure it out with your child! Put the washers into groups with the same number of washers in each group and put all of the rings in one pile. Then, ask your child to guess if there are more washers or rings in the box.

Now, change the way the objects are presented: Does grouping either, or both, kinds of objects help your child guess more accurately?

Try it at Home

Sorting Socks!

Gather 10 pairs of socks. Keep 5 pairs rolled together, but separate the socks in the other 5 pairs. Set the two groups (paired socks and unpaired socks) on separate sides of the table. Now, ask your child to guess which group has more socks? Which group did they choose?

Does your child know what a ‘pair’ is? This activity is a great way to introduce your child to new number words: a ‘pair’ of something contains two items. How many socks would you have if there were only a “few”? What if you had “a few pairs” – how many would that be?