Interview - Dr Jo Van Herwegen, Psychologist, Kingston University, London

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As part of her research, Jo has devised a set of number games for pre-school children known as PLUS, to help them to learn maths skills. These have been piloted with six local nurseries.

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What is the idea behind the games?

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).

ANS is very important for mathematical abilities later on in life. Thus, I wanted to see if there was a way to develop games that improve ANS abilities and mathematical development in children.

The idea is that guessing is as important for maths as counting.

In everyday life we do it all the time. For example, if you take a taxi you need to know if the money you have in your purse will cover the costs of the journey. You have an in-built checking system (ANS) to know if you have too much or too little.

The games are designed to improve ANS and give children confidence in maths. For example, in one game two children each take a handful of pasta shapes and then look at how much each of them has and we ask them to quickly guess who has the most.

How did the trial with nurseries go?

We tried the games out with 60 children in six different nurseries, first with researchers playing with the children, and then training the nursery staff how to use them. Children from two-and-a-half to five played the PLUS games for ten minutes a day for five weeks.

What did the results show?

We used three different types of tests before the children started playing the games and the same tests afterwards. We also had a control group of children. The children who played PLUS did better in all the tests - on the dots game, the counting, and the working memory tests.

Dicky Birds, one of the nursery groups we worked with, was so impressed with the results it asked me to train staff at the group's other nurseries and it has recommended the PLUS games to Kingston local education authority.

What happens next?

The Government should focus on structured play to develop children's skills, not formal learning, at the age of four or five. We've already organised a training day for parents and also hope to make the handbook and games available online soon.

At the age of four, around 10-14 per cent of children show signs that they might be at risk of developing mathematical difficulties. The next stage is to study a group of these children.

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