Photo: kavring/AdobeStock


Research project
Inactive research
Project period
2019 - 2021
Project owner
Department of education, communication and learning

The Swedish Institute for Educational Research

Short description

DUTTA stands for ”Studies for developing the teaching of toddlers’ number sense and emerging arithmetic skills”. In this project we investigate the development of number sense and emerging arithmetic skills among the youngest children in preschool (toddlers 1-3-years old). We also develop teaching activities based on theoretical principles to evaluate and analyse how these facilitate the toddlers’ learning of numbers’ meaning and use. The project is conducted in close collaboration between researchers and preschool teachers in Sweden.


Fundamental for mathematics education is how children understand the meaning of numbers and basic arithmetic principles, along with how to facilitate their learning in a meaningful pedagogical practice. This is an educational challenge that specifically concerns toddlers (1-3-yearolds), whose numerical competencies are rarely stimulated in a goal-oriented way, even though research has shown that early interventions and experiences have impact in the long run. We do have knowledge of number sense and emerging arithmetic skills that are expressed by young children, but we also know that not every child develops these skills without guidance. That is, we still lack deeper knowledge of how to facilitate learning av development of number sense and arithmetic skills in the early years, based on empirical research and theory about learning. Particularly, we need deeper insights into how educational interventions can be orchestrated to promote sustainable learning that is meaningful to the children.


The project is carried out in three Swedish preschools, involving 27 toddlers whose learning and development of number sense and arithmetic skills are followed during three semesters. The primary aim of the project is to develop theoretically solid preschool didactics that promotes mathematics learning as to be meaningful. This includes an interest in the participating children’s learning in a longitudinal perspective as well as teaching practice conducted in preschool settings. The toddlers learning is documented through play-based dialogues and observations of interaction in play and games in the teaching activities they take part in. The development of activities is done in close collaboration between preschool teachers and researchers.

Studies in preschools

Play-based dialogues

In the DUTTA project we have developed an instrument characterized as play-based dialogues where children are invited to take part in games and play with a mathematical content. The purpose is to generate data for analysis of children’s number knowledge and ways of experiencing numerical tasks. The games and plays are familiar to the toddlers and included in a story about a cat who is having a party. And when you have a party, you invite friends and share cookies, sort and organize items and play hide-and-seek. Together with the preschool teacher the child is involved in interaction where they express their understanding both in words and actions. These dialogues take place several times during the project, which gives us the opportunity to follow children’s development over a prolonged period of time. In our research, the focus is not on whether children know how to solve a task or not, it is rather how the children experience the task and numbers’ meaning, and how their ways of experiencing numbers change over time.

Designed teaching activities

An important part of the DUTTA project is to develop and evaluate preschool activities’ potential for mathematics teaching with the youngest children. Researchers and preschool teachers plan, conduct, evaluate and re-design activities that are based on common games and play observed to be of interest to the participating preschool children. For example: book reading, singing, motoric play and different kind of games with props. We develop these activities in accordance with variation theory principles, to offer the children best possible opportunities to ’see’ the meaning of numbers and how to make use of numbers in meaningful settings. The re-designed activities are tested several times and evaluated during a longer period. For research purposes we particularly focus on the interaction appearing in these activities and what seems to facilitate the learning of numbers based on children’s responses.

Child holding the book "Dutten bygger ett litet torn".
Book reading is one of the activities conducted in the project in order to facilitate toddlers’ learning of numbers’ meaning and use, based on variation theory principles.
Photo: Camilla Björklund


Variation theory is the theoretical framework for interpreting children’s ways of experiencing numbers and arithmetic and for designing and identifying powerful teaching activities. This project will thereby contribute to deeper knowledge about children’s developing number sense and arithmetic skills. This will furthermore contribute to the development of theoretically solid and on empirical research based preschool didactics.

Project members

Participants in the project are preschool teachers from three preschools and two researchers: professor Hanna Palmér, Linneaus university and professor Camilla Björklund, University of Gothenburg


Peer-reviewed original articles, reports

Palmér, H. & Björklund, C. (2022). The teaching of numbers in common preschool activities – a delicate balancing act. Early Childhood Education Journal.

Palmér, H. & Björklund, C. (2022). Divergence in interviews with children – Improving research quality. Designs for Learning, 14(1), 52–57.

Björklund, C. & Palmér, H. (2022). Teaching toddlers the meaning of numbers - Connecting modes of mathematical representations in book reading. Educational Studies in Mathematics. DOI: 10.1007/s10649-022-10147-3

Peer-reviewed conference proceedings

Palmér, H., & Björklund, C. (2022). Toddlers' ways of experiencing the meaning embedded in the question "How many years are you?". In J. Hodgen, E. Geraniou, G. Bolondi, & F. Ferretti (Eds.), Proceedings of the Twelfth Congress of European Research Society in Mathematics Education (CERME12). ERME / Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. hal-03750246

Björklund C., Palmér, H. & Landgren, L. (2022). Who or how many are missing? –Toddlers experiencing numerical meaning in a game. In L. Mattsson, J. Häggström, M. Carlsen, C. Kilhamn, H. Palmér, M. Perez, & K. Pettersson (Eds.), The relation between mathematics education research and teachers’ professional development. Proceedings of MADIF13. The thirteenth research seminar of the Swedish Society for Research in Mathematics Education, Växjö, 2022. (pp. 11–21). SMDF.

Björklund, C., & Palmér, H. (2021). Designing a tool for exploring toddlers’ number knowledge in preschool. In Y. Liljekvist, L. Björklund Boistrup, J. Häggström, L. Mattsson, O. Olande, & H. Palmér (Eds.), Sustainable mathematics education in a digitalized world. Proceedings of MADIF 12. Proceedings of MADIF 12 The twelfth research seminar of the Swedish Society for Research in Mathematics Education, Växjö, 2020 (pp. 1–10). SMDF.

Chapters in books:

Björklund, C. & Palmér, H. (2023). Exploration of researchers’ and teachers’ mixed roles and aims in research on toddler mathematics. In C. Wallerstedt, E. Brooks, E. Eriksen Ødegaard, & N. Pramling (Eds.), Methodology for research with early childhood education and care professionals. (pp. 33-43). Springer.

Popular science articles

Palmér, H. & Björklund, C. (2020). Att undervisa för toddlares taluppfattning. Förskoleforum.

Björklund, C., & Palmér, H. (2019). DUTTA – Praktiknära forskning om de yngsta barnens taluppfattning och räknefärdigheter. SMDFbladet, 8, 11–13.