Our guest blogger is Sanne Rathé. She wrote a PhD on the role of spontaneous attention to Arabic numerals in the mathematical development of young children.

Wassim (4 years old) is immensely fascinated by number symbols such as 0, 1, 2, …, 9. It seems as if he is looking for these symbols everywhere in his surroundings: “Which number is on the calendar today, sir Bram?a Look, Thijs’s crown has the number 5! We live at home in house number 12”. Teacher Bram also notes that Wassim can already read a lot of numbers correctly.

Not a curricular goal, but important according to research

The ten numerical digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are called Arabic numerals. These are by far the most commonly used symbols to write decimal numbers.

According to the Flemish curricular goals for mathematical initiation, our Flemish 5- and 6-year-old preschoolers do not yet have to be able to read Arabic numerals, let alone write them. Fortunately, reality shows a different picture. In almost all Flemish preschool classes, Arabic numerals are discussed through play. Just think of the prices of things in the shopping corner or the calendar in the circle. But how important is that offer really? 

Research shows that knowledge of Arabic numerals at preschool age is an important building block for later math in primary school. Children who already know a lot of Arabic numerals in preschool also often become better at math in primary school (Göbel et al., 2014; Habermann et al., 2020; Purpura et al., 2013). That in itself is not so surprising, because Arabic numerals are central to the math problems that are discussed in primary school.    

In my doctoral research at KU Leuven, in addition to the importance of knowledge of Arabic numerals, we also investigated to what extent spontaneous attention to Arabic numerals plays a role in early mathematical development. We found that children who spontaneously – i.e. of one’s own accord, without any encouragement from a teacher or parent – pay attention to Arabic numerals in their everyday environment are also better at math than their peers who do not or to a lesser extent (Rathé et al., 2019, 2020, 2021). But how come?   

Preschoolers who spontaneously notice Arabic numerals in their daily environment and actively work with them, give themselves more practice opportunities to practice that knowledge and those skills. This greater number of spontaneous practice opportunities subsequently ensures that these children have a stronger starting position in the first grade. 

No instruction, but maximum commitment to (spontaneous) learning opportunities

Although research shows that knowledge of Arabic numerals and spontaneous attention to them is important for later mathematical development, we are not in favor of systematically teaching Arabic numerals in preschool. There is plenty of time and space for that in the first grade.

What we do want to emphasize is that there are a lot of opportunities and possibilities to introduce Arabic numerals in a playful way in and outside the preschool. In this way, young children are stimulated to discover Arabic numerals and they may spontaneously look for Arabic numerals or other mathematical elements in their daily environment, which only benefits their mathematical development. 

Read more? 

More information about the role of spontaneous attention to Arabic numbers in the mathematical development of young children can be found in my doctoral thesis. Available online at: https://lirias.kuleuven.be/3436981?limo=0 Rathe, S. (2021). Focusing on numbers – An investigation of the role of children’s spontaneous focusing on Arabic number symbols in early mathematical development [Doctoral dissertation, KU Leuven]. limo.



  • Göbel, S. M., Watson, S. E., Lervåg, A., & Hulme, C. (2014). Children’s arithmetic development: It is number knowledge, not the approximate number sense, that counts. Psychological Science, 25(3), 789–798. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613516471 
  • Habermann, S., Donlan, C., Göbel, S. M., & Hulme, C. (2020). The critical role of Arabic numeral knowledge as a longitudinal predictor of arithmetic development. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104794 
  • Purpura, D. J., Baroody, A. J., & Lonigan, C. J. (2013). The transition from informal to formal mathematical knowledge: Mediation by numeral knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 453–464. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031753 
  • Rathé, S., Torbeyns, J., De Smedt, B., & Verschaffel, L. (2019). Spontaneous focusing on Arabic number symbols and its association with early mathematical competencies. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 48, 111–121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2019.01.011 
  • Rathé, S., Torbeyns, J., De Smedt, B., & Verschaffel, L. (2020). Spontaneous focusing on Arabic number symbols: A unique component of children’s early mathematical development? Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 22(4), 281–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/10986065.2020.1848273 
  • Rathé, S., Torbeyns, J., De Smedt, B., & Verschaffel, L. (2021). Longitudinal associations between spontaneous number focusing tendencies, numerical abilities, and mathematics achievement in 4- to 7-year-olds. Journal of Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-0663.94.4.659


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Number symbols in preschool (0, 1, 2, …, 9)

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