how children learn to count and understand numbers

Counting; it’s easy as 1-2-3 and simple as do-re-mi, right? Well maybe it is now, but at some point you probably thought nine came before six! The concept of counting can be pretty tricky for your little one to pick up but there’s plenty you can do to encourage them. Here to make those magic numbers a bit easier is our guide to when and how children learn to count.

when do children learn to count

Like any stage of development, the age at which children learn to count can vary greatly. Some kids will pick it up fairly easily while others will need a little longer. But all children will start learning about numbers before any formal teaching starts. After all, numbers are just another word to begin with and an 18-month-old will know about 20 of those. They’ll also comprehend more than they can verbalise at that age.

As your babbling bundle gets older, their understanding of numbers will gradually grow and they’ll start to twig that they’re more than just words. They’re everywhere! On the front of houses when visiting their cousins. In the corners of their bedtime book. And all over their favourite tv show that they love to watch on repeat.

Through songs, playtime and other activities, they’ll also start noticing changes in the number of objects, images or sounds that appear in small groups. This helps lead the way to understanding the concept of quantities, like more or less, at around 2 years old. Eventually they’ll learn to count objects, though sometimes not in order, and understand that adding or taking away those objects means counting to higher or lower numbers.

Two girls learning to count with giant numbers

Whether they’ve already got the basics under their belt or are content with repeating “3-2-1 blast off!” as they play, you might be wondering…

how can you help your children learn to count?

While every child will learn to count at their own pace, you can definitely give them a helping hand. Why not make numbers a part of their day from the very beginning and adapt the help you provide as they develop. With that in mind, here’s a few ways you can help your children learn to count and understand numbers as they grow:

sing silly songs and read lots of rhymes

Counting songs and nursery rhymes are a great way of introducing numbers. Splashing in the bath? Sing about five little ducks who went swimming one day. Wriggling around for some tummy time? Count their little piggy toes. No matter what you’re doing, there’s probably a song to go with it.

As your little bundle gets bigger, they’ll enjoy cuddling up together with their favourite book. It’s the perfect chance to use something they love to help them learn to count. With a textured picture book in hand, count the different animals or colours they can see. They might just want to stroke the fluffy sheep at first, but it’s an easy and fun way to include numbers in everyday activities.

Mum reading with her daughter to help her learn to count

don’t leave the learning at the door

Whether you’re heading out to play at the park or just popping to the shops (sometimes that’s adventure enough!), keep an eye out for any opportunity to name some numbers. If you spot lots of four-legged friends, point in their direction and say “Look, can you see the three white dogs?” Or in the supermarket, count out how many apples you’re picking up. This engages their attention and helps them to associate numbers with real life objects.

As they learn to count and understand numbers, take things a step further. Ask them how many buses they can see or if they can pick out three oranges for you. If they get it wrong, don’t just correct them. Instead, show them how it’s done - “I think there’s more than two buses; let’s count them together.” After all, numbers are tricky things!

make it tasty to learn to count

We all know that growing tots LOVE to eat, so a tray of food makes an ideal learning tool. In the early days, count out the carrot sticks as you put them on their plate then watch them be demolished. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking but you get the idea. Mealtimes are an easy opportunity to help children understand what numbers mean.

When your little one starts getting to grips with numbers, ask them how much of something they want. Encourage them to count how many chips they have left once they’ve eaten a few and the same again if you add a couple more to their plate. This helps them to understand the link between the amount of something and all those numbers they’ve started to memorise.

Baking together is also a fantastically tasty way to learn about numbers. Whether you use premade mix or whip up a secret recipe from Grandma, there are lots of mathematical elements to explore together. There’s weight and size, volumes and amounts, solids and liquids. Plus, your little one will get a tasty treat to reward all their hard work and encourage them to keep learning!

Grandma baking with grandson to help him learn to count

be patient and remember to repeat

This last one probably goes without saying but practice and patience are key. After all, being able to count and understand the concept of numbers won’t happen overnight! But the more time you spend doing and showing, the easier and more engaging it will be for your little one to pick it up.

Speaking of making numbers engaging, there are lots of easy ways to vary your children’s learning and keep things interesting, for everyone involved:

• Wiggle their fingers (or yours) as you practice counting to make it more interactive and visual
• Draw shapes on dewy bus windows or chalky pavements and count their number of sides
• Count anything and everything – buttons when getting dressed, toys in the bath, dogs at the park
• Read books like Dr Seuss’ One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish to mix counting with colours
• Or, create a story together that encourages their imagination and uses all the numbers they know

If you can use these tips and involve your little one’s favourite things, learning to count should come naturally as you have fun together. Just remember not to compare your little one to others their age; every child develops at a different rate. What’s more important is to focus on activities that make it fun for them to learn and understand the concept of numbers. Before you know it, they’ll be adding like Einstein!


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