Children's attention to numerical quantities relates to verbal number knowledge: An introduction to the Build-A-Train task

Dev Sci. 2021 Dec 9;e13211. doi: 10.1111/desc.13211. Online ahead of print.


Which dimension of a set of objects is more salient to young children: number or size? The 'Build-A-Train' task was developed and used to examine whether children spontaneously use a number or physical size approach on an un-cued matching task. In the Build-A-Train task, an experimenter assembles a train using one to five blocks of a particular length and asks the child to build the same train. The child's blocks differ in length from the experimenter's blocks, causing the child to build a train that matches based on either the number of blocks or length of the train, as it is not possible to match on both. One hundred and nineteen children between 2 years 2 months and 6 years 0 months of age (M = 4.05, SD = 0.84) completed the Build-A-Train task, and the Give-a-Number task, a classic task used to assess children's conceptual knowledge of verbal number words. Across train lengths and verbal number knowledge levels, children used a number approach more than a size approach on the Build-A-Train task. However, children were especially likely to use a number approach over a size approach when they knew the verbal number word that corresponded to the quantity of blocks in the train, particularly for quantities smaller than four. Therefore, children's attention to number relates to their knowledge of verbal number words. The Build-A-Train task and findings from the current study set a foundation for future longitudinal research to investigate the causal relationship between children's acquisition of symbolic mathematical concepts and attention to number.

Keywords: attention; cardinality; cognitive development; numbers; quantity; un-cued matching task.