“One, two. Buckle my shoe! Three, four. Shut the door! Five, six. Pick up sticks!” Counting is an easy activity that can be done literally anywhere and it’s never too early to start exposing young children to numeracy. Just like singing a familiar song, there is a rhythm to counting that children will start to internalize and draw from memory. How many of you parents remember counting songs that you learned from Sesame Street or the The Electric Company as a kid? My two favorites were the Ladybug Picnic and the Pinball Number Count Song. These are classics that I promise will get stuck in your head.
Young children typically start with what is called rote counting. Rote counting memorizing the particular sequence of numbers in order but not necessary understanding the symbolism or value of each individual number. They have basically memorized counting like memorizing a song such as the ABC’s. For example, 3-year-old Shelly can often be heard repeating “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” as she runs her fingers across 8 chairs or 10 pennies. She knows that there is an order of counting, however, she hasn’t grasped that each chair represents a value in the total number of chairs or that even the first 5 pennies represents “5.” Still, rote counting is a milestone in itself because it signifies that children understand “to count” means to start at 1 and continue so on and so forth in a particular order.
Once Shelly has mastered rote counting, she can easily transition to 1-to-1 counting. One-to-one counting is when children understand that one object represents 1, or that 3 objects represent 3, or that 10 objects represent 10. Still, another concept related to 1-to-1 counting is cardinality. A child grasps cardinality when s/he knows to stop counting when s/he has no more items to count. Let’s, apply both of these concepts to the previous example of Shelly with the 8 chairs. If Shelly touches each chair as she counts aloud to 8, she is showing 1-to-1 counting. If she stops at 8 she has grasped cardinality, as well. However, if Shelly continued to count to 9, 10, or 11 she has not yet mastered cardinality.
The best way to learn counting is practice during natural play. There are many easy way to make counting fun with young children. It’s heartwarming to see children jump at the opportunity to count anything and everything. They will count chair legs, tiles on the ceiling, mailboxes, or even people on their cell phones! When my son was young, I quickly learned how many fire hydrants were along Commercial Street. My son loved to ask “Mama, why?” questions while I was driving and it always distracted me from paying attention to the road. I told him to keep an eye out for all of the fire hydrants we pass and to start counting them. He loved this! He enjoyed using his eye-spy skills to find the little yellow hydrants and he got to practice counting. Challenge yourself to find unconventional items for your child to count when you’re out and about. Pay attention to their 1-to-1 skills and encourage them to practice cardinality by noting whether or not there are more items to count.