Preschool Math Learning - Part 2 - How to Foster an Understanding of Numbers & Counting

14 January 2020

Preschool Math Learning -  Part 2 - How to Foster an Understanding of Numbers & Counting

As a preschool teacher, I’ve heard young children talk about how much things cost in play, usually without any understanding of what a dollar or a quarter really are. For example, while playing store, Mark sold an apple for 10 dollars and later sold his coat and hat for just 10 cents.

Like Mark, your preschooler learns numbers by memory and often has no understanding of what these abstract math terms really mean. Through everyday experiences, you can help your preschooler begin to attach meaning to numbers. And opening your child’s eyes to the wonderful world of math can be done in fun, everyday ways! 

But first, let’s explore how 3 early math concepts develop and grow in very young children, so that you can understand where your little one’s learning fits in:

Rote Counting - Before a child is 3 years old, she often can count to ten in proper order. This kind of counting, called rote counting, often has little specific meaning for the child. Number words may only be sounds to her, sounds that are repeated in a particular memorized sequence like a familiar song. For math learning, rote counting is similar to the stage in the development of speech when a child can repeat words without really understanding their meaning. For example, when counting a group of blocks, your preschooler may count the first block saying “One, two, three,” and then count the second block, “four.” She remembers the order of the words, but not what the numbers mean.

Rational Counting - Quite different and more complex than rote counting is understanding numerals, or rational counting. Starting usually at about 3 years of age, rational counting is more complex because it involves understanding numbers as they apply to a sequence of objects. And, that each numeral represents the position of an object in the sequence. For example, button 1, button 2, button 3, and so on. Equally or more difficult for a very young child to understand is the idea that the last number counted in a sequence also represents the total number of objects counted. 

This higher-level number understanding develops slowly for most children. So, simple, everyday math activities will help them strengthen their understanding of rational counting. For example, you can count as steps as they are being climbed, objects as they are being stacked, and foods as they are being distributed. This daily repetition and experience of counting actively will help your child move beyond memorizing the sequence and sounds of numbers to actual understanding.

One-to-One Correspondence - True counting ability, or rational counting, is not possible until your little one understands one-to-one correspondence. In other words, to say the numbers by memory is one thing, but to correctly count items - one number per item- is definitely more difficult. It is more difficult because it involves your child’s understanding the position of an object in an order. So, to encourage this one-to-one correspondence, it helps to have your preschooler physically touch each object as she counts. For example, count each fork as your preschooler sets the table or each toy they put away.

5 Quick Counting Activities

Now that you understand how early math skills grow, here are 5 quick activities that help preschoolers ages 2 and older grasp and use the mathematical concept of counting. 

  1. Collecting & Counting - Collect buttons, bottle caps, or similar small objects. Choose a number and have your little one practice counting that number of objects while putting them in a box or container.  For example, practice counting to three and then put three items in a box. Then ask your child to take two items out of the box, counting the items as they are removed.
  2. Bean Bag Toss - Choose a large target, like a spot on the floor, a chair, or a spread out blanket, and ask your little one to count and toss a specified number of bean bags onto the target. For example, “Can you toss 2 bean bags into the chair” Or, ask your preschooler to choose you the number of bean bags they want to toss and count them together as she throws each one. We like to use bean bags like these on Or, you can make your own bean bags by filling old, clean socks with dry beans and closing them with a rubber band. This activity is also great for large motor skills and coordination too!
  3. Active Numbers - Draw numbers on individual pieces of paper, construction paper or printer paper like this, one per each sheet. Spread them out on the floor. Now, ask your preschooler to do things like, “Put your foot on the number 4.” “Put your hand on the number 5.” “Sit on number 3.” 
  4. Number Art - Make your own number art by first writing numbers in sequence, let’s say 1, 2, 3 and 4. Now, work together to paste the correct number of small objects next to your written numerals. We like to use beans, buttons, sequins, or recycled construction-paper paper squares.
  5. Read Children’s Books About Counting - There are many excellent sources of children’s books for math learning. One example is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Reading and seeing how the caterpillar eats through a variety of foods, one-by-one emphasizes your child’s one-to-one correspondence. And counting the number of foods the caterpillar eats in the story is a fun way to practice their rational counting. Looking for other math-friendly preschool books? You can check out Stanford University’s Development and Research in Early Math Education's 40 Children’s Books That Foster a Love of Math right here. 

Looking for more fun, math-friendly ideas? Try counting with our Math Activities like Family-mobiles and Paper Plate Shake Shakers. It's easy, everyday and hands-on experiences like these provide that will create a foundation for your child’s long-term love of math.

Did these ideas support your kiddo's math learning? Feel free to tell us what you think right here. And stay tuned for Part 3 of our Preschool Math Learning series - Classification & Sorting!

Thanks for the inspiration/photo credit goes to NASA’s data map of Hurricane Florence’s rainfall in North Carolina from Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, representing on inches of rainfall on scale of blue to red, with blue representing under 10 inches and dark red representing over 50 inches of total rainfall.