What’s the best way to get a child to learn mathematics? As it turns out – and probably much to the chagrin of many parents – one of the most effective ways appears to be teaching mathematics through videogames.

Multiple studies have shown that videogames improve cognition, reasoning and mathematical abilities in young children, particularly those around pre-school age, where the brain is undergoing a vital period of development. A new study reveals that even the most basic of digitized number games makes learning mathematics far more of a breeze for children than you may think. Just five minutes of simple estimation tasks radically and rapidly improves their ability to understand values and quantities.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a team of researchers describe how their game aims to make kids realize they can be intuitively good at mathematics, rather than forcing new skills or techniques upon them for the first time. For example, even the youngest baby – or even baby animal – is born with an inherent sense of understanding quantity, telling the difference between what is more and what is less using their “approximate number system”.

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Despite the fact that this primitive number sense and the exactitude of mathematical quantification are both very different in terms of their precision, both are clearly linked. One cannot achieve the latter without a robust version of the former set in stone in their minds, after all. Seizing on this, the team from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) decided to develop a videogame based on this in order to improve the rudimentary mathematical abilities of children.

“That’s the big question,” Jinjing “Jenny” Wang, a graduate student at JHU and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “If we can improve people’s intuitive number ability, can we also improve their math ability?”

For this study, the team recruited 40 5-year-olds to play a 5-minute-long videogame. Blue and yellow dots flashed up on the screen, and children were asked to pick if there were more blue ones or more yellow ones – and quickly, without giving them time to count. A voice feedback system told them if they were correct or not after each attempt.

One group of kids played a version of the game wherein each round had increasingly similar numbers of blue and yellow dots. Another group began with the hardest possible color combinations, and a third group worked through a mixture of randomly sequenced easy or hard rounds.

After a 5 minute session, the children were given either a vocabulary test or a mathematics test, the latter of which involved basic addition or choosing which numbers were higher or lower in a sequence.

Ultimately, the dots test didn’t improve their vocabulary scores; however, the kids who played the version of the dots game wherein each subsequent round was more difficult than the one preceding it scored the highest on the mathematics test – they got about 80 percent of the answers right.

The children who started with the hardest color combinations first got 60 percent of the answers in the mathematics test right, and the control group, featuring the mix of hard and easy tasks, scored around 70 percent on average. Clearly, at least in the short term, 5 minutes of honing their instinctual mathematics skills improves their more precise mathematics skills.

In fact, it’s particularly interesting that the group doing the same task but with increasing difficulty came out with the best scores. A recent study demonstrated that people doing precisely this doubled the speed in which they learned and adapted to the game at hand, thanks to a phenomenon known as “reconsolidation”, wherein the original neural connections forged earlier during the game are altered and reinforced, making them more adaptable in the long-run.