Imogen Harbour has just turned three but already she has the maths skills of a child starting school. She can count to 20, identify the numbers, knows all her shapes, does complex puzzles and has a basic understanding of fractions.
Yet Imogen hasn't been formally taught any of this, having only ever attended a playgroup. "We don't actively sit down with her to do maths things," mum Megan Harbour says. "She naturally engages with everything to do with numeracy within day to day life. We just foster that – whatever she's interested in, we'll engage her."
That includes Imogen helping her mum with the money at the shops, pressing the buttons on the EFTPOS machine, identifying different number plates, and working out what proportion of a cake wasn't eaten. "She's far beyond her peers," Ms Harbour said. "She blows us away."
Imogen's mathematical aptitude bears out the findings of a long-term study which found that children who didn't attend any formal early education services were better at maths than their peers enrolled in formal programs.
The E4Kids project is following a group of preschoolers for five years to determine what forms of early education are best for a child's development.
Using data from 1300 children participating in the study, University of Melbourne researchers compared the maths and language skills of children who attended preschool, long day care and family day care, with those looked after by non-professional child carers.
They predicted that children who attended formal early childhood education and care services in the first three years of life would have better maths and verbal skills than their peers who had no professional teaching.
But after controlling for child and family characteristics, they found that children in informal care "significantly outperformed" their peers in maths. Meanwhile there were no significant differences between the two groups' language abilities.
The study authors suggested early childhood teachers lack the confidence to teach maths. "Given the fact that many early childhood educators describe anxiety about their own mathematics knowledge and negative feelings about mathematics in general, one can expect them to spend more time teaching literacy ... than mathematics," they concluded.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Samantha Page agreed. "I think people do lack confidence in maths and numeracy," she said. "I think early childhood attracts people who are probably more relational and communication-oriented than strong in the maths and science area."
The one-on-one care kids at home often receive also benefits their maths development.
"The home learning environment has a powerful influence on mathematical performance," University of Melbourne researcher Claudia Cohrssen said. "In this study it is likely that the children in informal settings benefited from one to one engagement with their caregiver, possibly for extended times."
Early childhood experts cautioned that the study was completed before new regulations were introduced to boost the quality of early childhood education programs.
The National Quality Framework requires all staff to hold an early childhood qualification and every long day care centre to have at least one degree-qualified staff member.
"We expect that higher qualification standards will support improved numeracy learning in early childhood settings," Ms Page said. "There is also scope for more professional development to ensure that teachers and educators develop a depth of professional knowledge in key areas such as early literacy and numeracy."