A toddler’s guide to mathematics: Don’t stop at 1…2…3!

Bottom line: Count tangible objects with your child above the number 4 for the best impact on their later numerical literacy.

Finding geeky scientific papers about childhood development makes my day. Finding one that helps me teach my 18 month old how to grasp mathematics? Well that might make my month.

By the age of four, numerical literacy between children varies significantly. In the September 2012 edition of Scientific Development, researchers Elizabeth A. Gunderson and Susan C. Levine released findings that indicate how a parent teaches numbers is a key part of this difference.

Their study observed 44 children in their home starting at the age of 14 months using data to 30 months. The families weren’t told of the researchers interest in numbers, and all of the dialogue and activities were videotaped and recorded. The parent’s behaviour when their child was between these ages was enough to predict their mathematical ability at age 4.

They found much of parent’s numerical speech, 61%, was about numbers was limited to small number sets–1, 2, 3. Some counted objects that were present and some imagined numbers (non-present objects). A small percentage of the time, about 12%, parents used numbers greater than four. About 8.3% of this 12% was done counting present objects (I.e. 10 grapes for lunch).

The authors found that the best way for parents to improve their children’s cardinal number knowledge (the ability to recognize a group of three things is “three”), was to talk about small sets of numbers a lot and utilize present sets of large numbers (4-10) in early years. The best way to do this is to talk about large sets of numbers as they also include the smaller sets (i.e. when you count to 4 and above you have to count up to 3 first).

In otherwords, counting to 3 is something most parents do, but then we stop, thinking beyond that small number is beyond the comprehension of our children. Toddlers who were engaged with larger sets of numbers with objects that were tangibly in front of them were the ones ahead in math by the age of four.

“These results suggest that children whose input includes a lot of small-number talk but not very much large-number talk may learn the small numbers quickly, but then become stalled when faced with the problem of learning the cardinal principle; as a result, children who receive large-number input in addition to small-number input may surpass them.”

It is notable that counting objects in one’s imagination (i.e. that weren’t right in front of you), did not show statistically to improve a child’s ability at age four. Also, the more a parent talked did not have any affect on numerical literacy, and the more a parent talked about numbers did not affect non-numerical literacy. The study corrected for Socio Economic Status (SES), but it is worth noting that 24% of the variance between children could be attributed to SES.

The bottom line: count larger group of present objects with your child in order to give them strong numerical literacy in later years.


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