Counting with very young children

December 12, 2022

Our 3.5 year-old son is suddenly counting everything, all the time. I’m trying to remember what, if anything, we did to support his early mathematical thinking. I do know that we never pressured him to count, or used flash cards, or anything like that. However, we did do a lot of counting over the years, and we tried to support mathematics in fun and natural ways.

I have a kind of video history of some of the ways we counted with him over the years. Not shown (because breaking out a video camera throws of the moment) are all the times we counted objects, counted actions when we were stirring something in the kitchen or cracking eggs, etc. etc. But here are some of the way points in the counting journey.

9 months

We love counting before something fun happens! And even though the baby is preverbal, he clearly knows something interesting is happening.

18 months

I’m cheating – this is actually our second child, and this video is taken more recently. However, it’s still instructive! We get to a kind of proto-counting here. It’s not “correct,” but that’s beside the point. It’s fun, and it’s hers.

27 months (2.25 years)

Back to our son, and you can hear the same intonation of the counting sequence. But it’s come a long way forward in the past 9 months! (Adding counting to swinging and other activities is a classic from Check out their website for more in this vein!)

44 months (just over 3 and a half)

Now that my son 3 and a half, we’ve started to see the fruits of the playful, casual approach to counting pay off. Because we counted often and for fun, he’s taken it up too, and it’s something he does on his own all the time.

For example, here he is counting eggs while he helps me make breakfast. It’s worth noting that I didn’t ask him to count the eggs – this is his project. (Though I did need to prompt him to count them again once I had the camera out.)

He’s also surprisingly solid on the elements of counting. One-to-one correspondence and memorizing the number sequence into the teens and beyond can trip kids up into Kindergarten, sometimes. What we want to model is touching one object for each number we say. Some combination of practice, interest, and his own idiosyncratic development have put him (mostly) over the hump of mis-aligning his count with the objects he’s touching.

Here he is counting a larger collection. You can see him slowing down his count to make sure he aligns his hands and his words. Again, the motivation to count these straws came entirely from him – I was just lucky to catch it on camera. Note – this video wasn’t embedding for some reason, but you can click the link below to watch it on vimeo.

We’re also very lucky that the grandparents in our life are pros working math into their interactions without it ever feeling forced or pedantic. Playing a game of war with his “Mima” provides the opportunity not just to compare greater/less than between the cards, but also to count the cards at the end. I missed the count on the larger deck, but caught them counting Mima’s (smaller) pile of cards. Frankly, if you’re playing games like this and counting this naturally, your kid is going to be ready for Kindergarten and then some. Listen for the tone change when he gets to 10 – that’s a classic sign that he’s understanding the cardinality of the set of cards: 10 is not just a word in the counting series; it’s the size of the set. You can model that kind of intonation when you count with younger kids!


More videos for early math

Meanwhile! I did just learn about the “California Dad” series from California’s Early Math Project. What do you think? Useful? Fun?

It’s on my mind, because I think we desperately need a national campaign to help people do math at home with their kids in the 6 – 36 month range. Do any of the videos here have a role to play? Or should it be an entirely different approach?

I’d love your thoughts!

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