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Toddlers Can Figure Out A Game Of Chance Quicker Than You Might Think

Matthias Rietschel
AP Photo
Toddlers play in a kindergarten classroom.

Toddlers use intuition for probability to their advantage, according to a new studyled by researchers at the University of Washington.

The researchers don't contend children as young as age 2 understand statistics, but they do wonder about potentially tapping into the intuition to help prepare children for concepts older students often struggle with, like fractions.

"That's the thing we're excited about in terms of talking to education folks, is trying to see, OK, are there ways we could introduce the concept of probability a little bit earlier and in more intuitive formats?" said Anna Waismayer, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

Playing The 'Ball Game'

Waismeyer's research team brought in dozens of 2-year-olds to play a simple game they called "the ball game." Without giving any verbal instructions to the child, a researcher sitting across the table would show the child how to play. Here's a video of one of the experiments:

"The experimenter would pick up a blue toy, put the toy on a little box, the box would light up and play a song, and sometimes, a marble would come out of a marble machine that was off to the side," Waismayer said.

The researcher repeated this process six times, and with the blue toy, a marble emerged from the machine four out of the six times.

Then, the researcher repeated the process with a second, red toy. This toy, though, only produced a marble one-third of the time.

The 2-year-olds were then given one chance to choose between the two toys, and of the total 64 children Waismeyer's team tested, 45 picked the blue toy —the one more likely to activate the marble machine.

Not Exactly Math Skill, But Mathematical Intuition

Waismeyer is careful to clarify that her team doesn't believe toddlers are capable of calculating mathematical probability, but able to at least make decisions based on a rough understanding of the concepts.

"These 2-year-olds can't explicitly tell me, 'Oh, that one works two-thirds of the time and that one works one-third of the time,'" Waismeyer said. "But they obviously have some kind of understanding, that one has a higher proportion than the other one. And they're already doing that comparison enough to be able to make a decision based on it."

To Waismeyer, that suggests there's an opening for educating kids about the concepts behind probabilities, proportions and fractions before they get to school. She envisions educational games for preschool-aged children and new curriculum "built to take advantage of the fact that kids are already coming in with that information."

Under the Common Core State Standards, third graders must show basic understanding of fractions. By sixth grade, students must begin to show their grasp of statistical concepts.

Waismeyer produced the study with fellow UW researcher Andrew Meltzoff and University of California, Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik. Their research appeared in the July 2014 issue of the journal Developmental Science.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.