Digital Learning for Young Children – Math Skills

When the boys were younger, I used apps and online math games to support their math skills development. Admittedly, it was a little experimental since we couldn’t be sure how effective digital learning was. Most importantly, we didn’t know how well it could translate to physical math learning.

digital learning
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

The following study takes a closer look at that learning in young children and the findings are encouraging. It is also great to understand how minor changes in the way the learning is presented can affect the depth of learning.

Young Children Can Learn Math Skills from Intelligent Virtual Characters

A new study examined whether young children’s verbal engagement with an onscreen interactive media character could boost their math skills. The study concluded that children’s parasocial (that is, one-sided) emotional relationships with the intelligent character and their parasocial interactions (in this case, talking about math with the character) led to quicker, more accurate math responses during virtual gameplay.

The findings are from research conducted at Georgetown University. They appear in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Our study suggests that children’s relationships and interactions with intelligent characters can provide new pathways for 21st-century education, with popular media characters bridging traditional boundaries between home and school settings.

Sandra L. Calvert, professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University

Researchers studied 217 children ages 3 to 6 years, most of whom were European American and from college-educated families. They examined the children’s math learning from a game featuring a prototype of an intelligent character. The character was based on Dora from the animated series, Dora the Explorer, who responded to children with spoken language.

Digital Learning Study Method

The research was conducted through three studies, each taking place over about a year:

  1. Researchers initially asked if children could learn from the intelligent character.
  2. Next, they examined the role of children’s parasocial relationships by including or not including a character in the virtual game.
  3. Finally, then they examined the role of social contingency, where some children’s talk about math would receive corrective feedback from the character and other children’s talk would not.

Children were taught the add-1 rule – that adding 1 to a number increases the total sum by a single unit – which is one of the most basic and earliest math concepts children learn. Researchers examined whether the children could learn this rule from an intelligent character in a virtual game, and how that learning was influenced by the children’s feelings for the character and their talk with the character. They also examined whether the children’s learning in a screen-based context would transfer to learning with physical objects, such as crayons.

Our work sheds light on how children’s connection to a character and interactions with them through math talk can improve learning of basic early math skills, a lesson that may be extended to other academic and social areas.

Evan Barba, associate professor of communication, culture, and technology at Georgetown University.

Digital Learning Study Findings

The study found that children who had stronger emotional feelings for the character and who talked more to the character about math had quicker, more accurate math responses during their virtual gameplay. Children also transferred what they had learned from the virtual game to physical objects more successfully when the game included an embodied virtual character (as opposed to a noncharacter female voiceover) and when the character used socially contingent replies to children’s talk about math. The findings suggest that children’s emotionally tinged parasocial relationships and parasocial talk about math with virtual characters increased their mastery of early math skills.

The implication of our findings is that media characters that are children’s friends and playmates can also be children’s trusted peers and teachers in math and other subjects.

Sandra L. Calvert

The study was supported by the United States National Science Foundation.

Extrapolating the Results

Based on these results, could we presume that math games featuring young children’s favourite characters can help them learn better? Leapfrog’s Learning Library may have stumbled onto something with their Math programs featuring a variety of favourite characters:

These may also be helpful for kids who identify with the characters and enjoy them:


The following are Math games G1 and G2 have enjoyed using:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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