As an experienced preschool teacher and Mom, I have many tips and ideas for teaching young children to count. First off I’d like to differentiate between actual counting and rote memorization of numbers in order. Often parents will say “My child can count to ten,” when in fact what they mean is that their child can recite their numbers in order from one to ten. This distinction in no way takes away from the pride kids and their parents should feel when young children have learned to recite numbers. This is a great accomplishment! It is simply meant to help families understand the difference between reciting numbers and counting from an educational perspective. Counting refers to understanding a one to one correspondence between the numbers and the items being counted.
As with many math skills, taking small steps will lead to a stronger stride in the end. If your child can recognize numbers one through ten and recite numbers one through ten, it is still best to start counting with low numbers. Kids will quickly distinguish between one item and two items but still doing this first for a while will help them to build confidence as they get to be right over and over. Then slowly progress to two items verses three items and so on until they are ready to try counting a variety of objects in random numbers.
There are many things that you can do daily that take just minutes a day to teach counting skills, reinforce math concepts and build a strong foundation in math.
Talking Math Everyday
Just as parents who want to teach their child to read will read to them everyday, parents who want to teach their child to count should count with them everyday. Here are a few topics and routines for beginning counting skills.
Math on the Move
Count every time you go up stairs with your child whether there’s two steps or twenty-four. Counting while going up stairs helps a child “feel” the progression of numbers with their whole body and provides a gross motor as well as auditory experience with the numbers.
You can make up simple math movement games that replicate this same benefit from using your whole body while learning to count. Let your child pick a number one through ten and then assign a movement such as 6 big arm circles or 10 hops. Then switch and you pick the numbers and let your child choose the movements. You’ll all enjoy a few minutes of exercise and fun while your preschooler is learning to count.
Chores Really Count
There are so many opportunities for practicing counting while doing chores. When you are putting away laundry together let your child give a laundry report. How many pairs of clean socks do we have for you? How many for Daddy? How many for Mommy? Or how many green washcloths have we folded today? How many blue? When your child is helping to set the table, how many napkins with they need? You can also give your child a bowl of ice and a pair of tongs and ask them if they could please help you out by putting (eight) cubes of ice in each glass. This counting activity includes fine motor skills and big smiles too.
Don’t Miss the Forest for the Numbers
Sometimes as parents as we hope to teach our children to count, to recognize colors and shapes and so on, we can overboard and narrow the focus of experiences too much. The parents of a former student shared one of my favorite stories that I think illustrates this point so well. The family took their young child to an historic site complete with log cabins and colonial life displays. The parents admittedly had focused on the color of the cabins, the circular shapes on end of the logs and the number of logs. When the grandparents asked the young child what he had seen at this historic site, he replied “nine brown circles.” So while it is fun and helpful to review counting and other skills as we go through our day, don’t overlook the big picture.