Susan Ramsay | Aug 26, 2015

The countdown to kindergarten is on! Children attending full day learning programs for the first time anticipate their number of sleeps before riding the big yellow school bus or arriving at their new school.

Counting, however, isn’t easy for young children. Joanna Zambrzycka, from the Mathematical Brains Laboratory at Wilfred Laurier University, explains that although mathematical understanding begins during infancy, parents and caregivers play a critical role in helping children develop important math skills before they go to school.

Experiments show that infants as young as one week old can discriminate among groups of one, two, or three objects, and by 10 months they are beginning to understand the concept of more.1 By two years of age, most children are saying their first number words and may be counting a few numbers by rote (1, 2, 3 etc.). But they don’t yet understand what number words mean. Sometime between their 2nd and 3rd birthday children typically grasp that number words mean something different from other adjectives such as big or blue. Rote counting indicates children understand that numbers have an order. Object counting shows that children understand numbers represent quantity.

In her book, Let’s Talk About Math, Donna Kotsopoulos and Joanne Lee, describe key skills children need for counting:

  • One-to-one correspondence (There is one count word for every object.)

  • Stable order (Counting words are neither out of order, nor missing.)

  • Cardinality (The last word counted is the quantity of the set.)

  • Abstraction principle (One-to-one, stable order, and cardinality apply to counting any group of objects.)

  • Order irrelevance (Counting can begin with any object in the set without changing the quantity.)

To help your child develop and master these key skills, begin by assessing your child’s math knowledge:

  • Take five objects (such as toy blocks or cars) for your child to count.

  • Ask your child to count them. Listen for stable order.

  • Ask your child to tell you how many objects he or she counted.

  • Ask your child to give you five objects.

  • Try this again with a different set of objects.

  • Did your child do all of the tasks correctly? If not, focus on counting activities using 3-5 objects only. If yes, reassess your child’s counting skills using 10 objects.

Support your budding mathematician’s counting skills:

  1. Show fingers or use gestures (such as pointing or tapping) as you count aloud. This helps convey your meaning, and encourages joint attention between you and your child.

  2. Ask your child to use their fingers to show ‘how many’ when he or she says a number.

  3. Ask your child to move each object as he or she counts to reinforce one-to-one correspondence. Children are less likely to double count items if they move the object while counting.

  4. When using picture books, look for objects to count that do not overlap. Visual space between items on the page makes it easier for children to identify them as separate.

  5. Count everything and anything – from crackers, to steps or hops, to flower petals, to family members. Reinforce the idea that everything can be counted.

  6. Avoid stories, songs and rhymes that count backwards until children have solidly established forward counting.

  7. Use mathematical talk. Describe your activities as a sequence of 1st, 2nd, 3rd rather than using 1st followed by ‘then’.

Children’s experiences with math prior to school entry impacts their success with mathematics throughout their school years.2 At play, mealtimes, storytimes and more, help your preschooler play and learn with numbers.

Counting counts!

1 Kotsopoulas, D. & Lee J. (2014). Let’s Talk about Math, Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing, pp. 7-8

2 Kotsopoulas, D. & Lee J. (2014). Let’s Talk about Math. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing; p. 1

Susan Ramsay is the Early Literacy Specialist for Hastings, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington. You can contact her at 613-354-6318 (ext 32) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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