THE BLOG
11/19/2014 07:00 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Learning to Count, Counting on Learning

If someone asked you what "counting" means, you might say that it means being able to say numbers in order: one, two, three, four, five....

It's important that children know how to do this, but it's actually not a math skill -- it's a memory skill. Being able to recite the words for the numbers in order doesn't mean your child understands what these number words really mean. That understanding usually comes later.

According to the National Council Teachers of Mathematics, the standard for numbers and operations for prekindergarten through grade 2 is to "count with understanding and recognize 'how many' in sets of objects...."

What does it mean for your child to "count with understanding"? It means that he or she knows that the word one refers to a single object of any kind, the word two refers to two objects and so on.

Here's where you come in, as parents and caregivers. The everyday experiences you provide for your child can help him or her build an understanding of the relationship between quantities of things in the real world and the abstract words used to talk about numbers.

Children have to be taught that there is a one-to-one correspondence of number to object (saying the number names while touching the objects being counted, one at a time). They also need to learn that counting two after one means that the first and second objects need to be added together to make the two, and so on.

So, when you start teaching your child to count, I recommend that you display the objects evenly spaced in a line so your child can see each one individually and count them sequentially, like this:

X   X    X    X    X    X    X    X   X   X (10)

Involving the senses can help, too. Have your child touch each object from left to right as he or she counts; this helps teach that when you are counting you say the next number for each object being counted. Better yet, have your child move the objects closer together as they count so they start to understand that five, for example, refers to all of the objects counted up to and including the fifth and not just the one called five, like this:

XXXXX(5)   X   X   X   X   X

Patterns are also helpful. Have your child practice recognizing sets of objects by the way they are grouped. Look at the dots on a six-sided die. Practice counting the dots and talking about the pattern made by the dots for the different numbers. Talk about how recognizing the pattern can tell you the number without counting. After repeated practice rolling the die and calling out the numbers, the patterns will be associated with the quantities they represent. Then try this simple variation: Hold five or six small objects in your hand and roll some of them out. Ask your child to look at the objects you rolled and quickly name the quantity -- without counting. After practicing this repeatedly, your child will be able to quickly and accurately tell you the number for each group of objects.

You might also have your child practice recognizing set of objects by the way they are grouped in a line, like this:

X
X X
X X X
X X X X
X X X X X

And remember, counting is part of life. It's very important when teaching counting and other early mathematics concepts to young children that they see numbers as part of their real-life experiences and, therefore, important to learn. So, look for things to count (it can be anything) with your child wherever you are. Some examples:

• Count shoes in a closet or socks in a drawer.
• Count the buttons on a jacket.
• Count flowers along your driveway.
• Count school buses on the way to school.
• Count the same number of knives, forks, spoons and napkins when setting the table.

Asking questions about counting can help strengthen your child's understanding of numbers and quantities:

• How many toys are in your toy box? Can you count them and tell me?
• Look at all of these puzzle pieces. Would you count them to find out how many there are?
• Here are two pieces of pasta; let's add two more. Can you put them together and count them to find out how many pieces of pasta you have now?

Finally, as with all early learning, remember to keep it fun, so your child will develop a love of numbers and math. Look for colorful, age-appropriate books that feature numbers and counting. Songs, too. For example, the ABCmouse.com Early Learning Academy Channel on YouTube offers free music videos that kids love, and I'd recommend these four to begin with to help nurture a love of counting (and music):

Count to Ten
Five Little Monkeys
Ten in the Bed
A Week Is Seven Days

You'll know that all the time you spent counting with your child was worth it when he or she encounters numbers in school and understands that these symbols and words represent quantities. That's called number sense, and it's an essential foundation for your child's future mathematics learning. You can count on it!

Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D, is a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the company that operates ABCmouse.com.