The role of pattern recognition in children's exact enumeration of small numbers

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Enumeration can be accomplished by subitizing, counting, estimation, and combinations of these processes. We investigated whether the dissociation between subitizing and counting can be observed in 4- to 6-year-olds and studied whether the maximum number of elements that can be subitized changes with age. To detect a dissociation between subitizing and counting, it is tested whether task manipulations have different effects in the subitizing than in the counting range. Task manipulations concerned duration of presentation of elements (limited, unlimited) and configuration of elements (random, line, dice). In Study 1, forty-nine 4- and 5-year-olds were tested with a computerized enumeration task. Study 2 concerned data from 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds, collected with Math Garden, a computer-adaptive application to practice math. Both task manipulations affected performance in the counting, but not the subitizing range, supporting the conclusion that children use two distinct enumeration processes in the two ranges. In all age groups, the maximum number of elements that could be subitized was three. The strong effect of configuration of elements suggests that subitizing might be based on a general ability of pattern recognition.

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