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Improving preschool children's number foundations

Children's underachievement in mathematics is a widespread and significant problem in the UK. Kingston University's Dr Van Herwegen offers an improved way to deliver numerical activities to preschoolers.

Children counting at preschool

Recent reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and others have shown that children in the UK are behind in mathematical achievement compared to children in Asian countries. One in five children in the UK leave school without reaching a basic level of mathematics, which impacts on the UK's economic growth. In addition, poor mathematical skills have a large impact on an individual's life quality in general, including educational outcomes and earning potential. Previous studies have found that young children experiencing mathematics difficulties will likely continue to experience these difficulties as they grow older.

Maths is more than just counting. To be good at maths you also need to know "where is more or less" very quickly. This is done by the approximate number system (ANS). Research by Dr Van Herwegen and others has shown that ANS problems in preschoolers are important predictors of later mathematical difficulties and that mediating the ANS development in children who perform low on mathematical ability tasks might prevent them from developing mathematical learning difficulties long term.

PLUS games boost children's confidence

Drawing on this previous work, Dr Van Herwegen has designed games, called Preschool Number Learning Scheme (PLUS) games, which improve the ANS system in preschool children. Children's confidence in maths is boosted as they are reassured that "it's okay to guess". Across a number of studies in the UK and in Trieste Italy, Dr Van Herwegen and collaborators have shown that playing PLUS games improves children's ANS and mathematical abilities.

Developing basic maths skills through play

The improvement in delivery was achieved through the implementation of an intervention programme in which preschool children played the PLUS games on a daily basis for five weeks. To measure improvement, a controlled-study design was adopted.
The intervention group and control group were matched on IQ scores, and at the start and end of the intervention study, children's number and reading abilities were measured. This allowed direct measurement of whether the games used in PLUS improved children's number abilities. The data showed that children in the intervention group did indeed perform better on tasks that involved their approximate number system (ANS). There was also a significant improvement in their counting and mathematical abilities.

Dr Van Herwegen has trained staff and parents in various nursery settings on the implementation and use of PLUS games. This has allowed for institutional changes, with preschool settings adopting PLUS to deliver play activities specifically intended to support and develop numerical skill acquisition.

Developing mathematical abilities in low achieving children

In a recent study, Dr Van Herwegen examined whether the PLUS games can also help children who perform low on mathematical ability tasks and how the PLUS games compare to other training programmes that are generally used to teach children numerical foundations, called DIGIT games. This study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and a report with the outcomes of this study can be downloaded.

Using the PLUS games

If you would like to use the PLUS games, you can download the games and lesson plans for free by completing our registering form.

Find out more about Dr Van Herwegen on her staff profile page.