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Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have built a game that activates kids’ intuitive number abilities, helping them score better on standardized math tests.

The challenges in the game—things like “do you see more blue dots or yellow dots?”—flash on the screen too quickly for kids to count. They answer based on intuition. The game limbers up their approximate number system, or ANS. This helpful feature of our minds helps us quickly identify quantities.

Your ANS kicks in when you’re deciding which supermarket checkout line to join. You don’t consciously count the number of people in each line, then count the number of items in each person’s cart. You glance down the lines, your ANS does its thing, and you pick one. Sadly, your ANS can’t tell you who’s going to use three coupons and then pay by check.

Kids have an ANS system too. In fact, so do fish. The game activated and sharpened this system, a sort of pre-game warm up. Kids who followed a standard training regimen during the game—that is, starting with easy questions and progressing to hard ones—scored 80% on the subsequent standardized test. Kids who started with hard questions at the beginning of the game scored just 60% on the standardized test. (The average control group score was 70%.) The researchers concluded that there’s a link between training intuitive math skills and higher performance on standardized math test performance.

Make sure you check out the video of the kids playing the game, it’s pretty adorable. The researchers’ next mission: Determining how long this effect lasts, and testing whether it works in classrooms.


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