Updated: Sep 7, 2020
I so often get children starting in my class whose parents tell me “they are great at counting”. Hurray! I think. We are off to a great start. However, with many of them, I soon realise that they can’t actually count. What they can do is recite, and that is a whole different skill.
I understand why parents confuse the two. I thought my three year old could count to twenty. He could count the stairs as we walked up them without any help from me. He counts when he forces me to play hide and seek (spoiler alert – he is always under a pile of cushions, giggling, with a foot sticking out). Even I fell foul of that common misconception. So one day, when I asked him how many bricks we had, and he started telling me the colours it took me by complete surprise. He didn’t really know how to count!
Children often learn to recite numbers before they can count. They hear us counting for so many different games and songs and are familiar with numbers. They learn that numbers are ordinal, in other words they start at one, go to two and so on. They soon learn that you can’t miss numbers out or switch them around because they won’t sound right anymore. They learn so much, but learning to count is not learning to recite.
Everything they have learnt so far gives them an excellent grounding but this is where the hard bit starts – learning mathematical concepts. So you think your pre-schooler can count? You may be right. Here is a breakdown of the skills needed for counting so you can assess their skills yourself.
Understanding ‘How Many?’ - Show your child a group of something. It can be anything. Biscuits, apples, building blocks, etc. Have a maximum of five items. Ask them “How many…do we have?” If your child says a number in response then they understand the question “How many?” You are half way there. Did they point to, touch or move the items and recite numbers as they did it? If not then they might understand that the answer to “How many?” should be a number but they do not yet understand that to find out the answer to a “How many?” question they need to count. Your next step is to model counting for them and talk as you model the skill. “How many apples do we have? I will count to find out. 1,2,3. We have three apples.”
So your child knows that when you ask “How Many?” they have to count to find out the answer. Can they count accurately? To count accurately you should teach your child to touch or move items as they count them to avoid counting any item more than once. Teach them these golden rules;
1. Touch or move each item as you count it
2. Only count an item once
3. Count slowly, don’t go too fast
4. Always start at ‘1’ and when you get to the last item stop counting
If your child is a maths master and can already do these things then there are four great next steps that you could move on to;
1. Counting sounds (e.g. claps or drum beats) and actions (e.g. how many times did we jump?)
2. Estimating then counting to check. This is a great skill to begin to get an idea of quantity. For example estimating that there are five apples (when there are four) shows a greater mathematics understanding than guessing that there are fifty apples
3. Recognising numerals
4. Matching numerals to quantity e.g. putting two blocks next to the number 2
Don’t forget that you can practice these skills anywhere with anything but if you are a sucker for beautiful things like I am then take a look at these wooden toys at Playbalu.