Those of us who value concrete, hands on learning don’t typically like the idea of learning anything by rote, but in this case it’s important. Before children can gain a meaningful understanding of quantities, numbers, and the relationships between them, they need to learn basic counting. Children tend to pick this up in their own time, but we can certainly offer some support along the way.
Counting can be a natural part of baking together, grocery shopping, and many other everyday activities. My Montessori teacher trainer emphasized the importance of counting with children and doing so in a pleasant tone, as though we’re enjoying ourselves – and hopefully we are! This suggestion stuck with me and I have always made a point of putting it into practice. It sounds silly, but I think it was actually the beginning for me of learning to love math again after years of dreading it in school. Like many things, an enjoyment of numbers can be contagious.
Coming up with ways to practice counting is pretty easy, and since we’re talking about rote counting here, it doesn’t require any dedicated materials, but here are a couple of basic ideas. I’m certain that you have your own, and I’d love to hear a few in the comments.
This is one of the many simple, yet clever ideas I learned from my former mentors. Not only does it make for great rote counting practice, but it’s an excellent introduction to the idea of turn taking in the context of a simple, non-competitive game. When children first get to the age where they’re interested in joining the games of older siblings and parents, the concept of each person having their turn can be tough! All you need is a basket, a collection of small objects, a die, and one dish or cup for each person playing.
In the photo above, I’ve used small craft store acorns and two apple shaped dishes – items I had collected for fall activities, but you can use anything you have around the house from buttons to bottle caps to pieces of pasta. Our current game set-up uses a numbered die with the numerals 1-6 because Annabelle recently demonstrated that she could recognize these numerals. For a child who doesn’t know them yet, however, a standard die with dots is perfect. On their turn, each person rolls, counts the dots on the die, and then counts the corresponding number of objects into their dish. Young children will make mistakes and there’s really no need to correct them. This is all for fun and practice. When all of the objects are gone from the basket, the players can count together as they place them all back in. There’s no need to declare a winner, since the goal is just to count and have fun.
Count through your day
Counting can be a natural part of most any everyday activity. You can run the comb through your child’s hair (or better yet, count with them as they do it), put on two socks and two shoes, walk down all (insert number) steps, put ten raisins into the oatmeal, and the list goes on. Any time you’re dealing with multiple objects and doing so wouldn’t be a distraction, try counting!
When my daughter was an infant, there were few things she liked less than car rides and I was constantly looking for safe ways to soothe her while on the road. She must have been six or seven months old when, one night, we were driving home and singing to her just was not working. For some reason or another, I tried counting aloud and she relaxed almost instantly. I got to 100 and she was asleep. After that, counting became my default soothing tool and it continued to work for several weeks. Now that she’s older, we still make a fun game of counting together in the car sometimes. Somehow I doubt this is a universal tool for soothing fussy babies, but counting games in the car are great for toddlers and preschoolers.
Use Songs and Rhymes
Songs like “Five Little Monkeys”, or at this time of year, “Five Little Pumpkins” can be so much fun for toddlers and preschoolers, and as a bonus they help familiarize children with counting. I find that singing in the car, (quietly) while waiting in lines or waiting rooms, and during other activities that are otherwise difficult and not-so-stimulating for young children is a great tool for keeping things from deteriorating. There are some wonderful counting books out there, too. The most recent one to join our collection was 1, 2, 3 Dinosaurs Bite, which I love. There is no sense in rushing or drilling, but I believe there’s much value in sharing a love of numbers with young children through song, literature, and other everyday experiences.
One to One Correspondence
Any parent of a toddler knows that when children first begin to count, they’re not fully aware of the idea that each number corresponds to a discrete unit of something. They love to point while counting, and may reach 20 while, apparently haphazardly, pointing at the same three objects over and over again. This is because they have not yet developed an understanding of one to one correspondence. This typically happens on its own, depending on the individual, sometime around age three or four, and there are plenty of activities we can offer as tools when we see an interest.
While on the path to learning that numbers each refer to individual objects or quantities, the numbers themselves tend to be very abstract and therefore not particularly helpful for children as they make sense of the world. Children will first learn to connect objects with other objects. One sock for each foot, one spoon for each bowl, one coat for each hook, and other real world experiences with bring children’s first exposure to the concept of one-to-one correspondence. Activities you can create will simply be those where one set of objects is matched exactly to another set. The activity shown at left is one example, where there are two equal sets – one set of pom poms and one of sections in a colorful ice tray. Exactly one pom pom is transferred into each section. You can do a similar activity, with or without tongs or another tool for transfer, using any container that has defined sections and any objects that fit inside. Placing muffin tin liners in a muffin tin, peat pods into a planting tray, or shoes onto a shoe rock are all great ways of practicing one-to-one correspondence.
The examples above are excellent first experiences since they involve a stationary and clearly defined place to put objects. Before long, this will be easy for the child and it’s then that you can begin to offer two loose sets of corresponding objects for pairing. If your child has a large collection of dolls, you can bring together all of their socks and shoes and invite your child to match one sock to each shoe. The photo at right shows my two and a half year old placing pom poms into disposable muffin liners she took an interest in while we were baking. I gave her exactly one pom pom for each muffin cup so that the sets of objects corresponded exactly. Play food and little plates would be another great thing to transform into an activity for one to one correspondence. Of course there’s no need to step in and constantly steer our children’s play toward a learning activity – especially since play is learning after all. Simply offering equal sets tends to be enough, and the child who is beginning to understand one to one correspondence will likely use them as a tool for pairing on his or her own.
Concrete Experiences with Quantity
As we all know, an ability to count does not indicate a concrete understanding of numbers. Actually recognizing that three is more than two and ten is much more than both two and three, etc, comes after repeated, meaningful experiences with quantity. In the Montessori classroom, we use the Number Rods to fulfill this purpose. This material includes ten wooden rods varying in length from 10cm (shortest rod) to 100cm (longest rod). The first, or one rod is exactly half the size of the second, or two rod and each one is exactly 10cm longer than the one before. Each rod is painted so that it has alternating red and blue sections of exactly 10cm each. We count the sections and use the three period lesson (described here) to connect number to rod, introducing the first by saying “this is one” and the last by saying, “this is ten,” and so on. Not only do the number rods allow the child to see just exactly how much greater ten is than one, and to examine all of the quantities in between, but the child also feels the difference between each rod while carrying them from the shelf to rug and back again, and moving them around on the rug to build them into a stair.
At home, you can certainly create your own materials for this purpose. Deb at Living Montessori now has a roundup post filled with ideas for DIY Number Rods and Alternatives. Counting is a great skill to practice, but developing a concrete sense of quantity is more complex, and anything that can give a visual and tactile sense of different amounts is valuable when children are ready. The number rods are a great starting point because they deal with a “fixed quantity,” so there aren’t loose objects that children have to spread out in a specific way. Less room for error means it’s easy to focus on the quantity alone and less likely that there will be errors and confusion. Later, loose objects are a great, more challenging choice.
Remember how I said at the very beginning of this series that there’s so much more to early math and language skills than learning letters and numbers and that, in fact, there’s not much point in worrying about those things early on because they’re far more complex than we think? This post should give you a sense of what I mean when it comes to numbers. Knowing the numerals is really not all that beneficial until children can count, understand one to one correspondence, and have a concrete sense of quantity.
By the time a concrete sense of quantity has developed, many children will have learned to recognize the numerals already. Others may not have taken an interest, but there are a number of ways to introduce them and create an invitation for practice. In the Montessori classroom, we use the Sandpaper Numerals for this purpose, introducing them in the same way as the Sandpaper Letters, using a Three Period Lesson. For those whose children are doing their early learning at home, Deb at Living Montessori Now has a great post with ideas for DIY and Inexpensive Sandpaper Numbers.
Connecting Numeral with Quantity
This post is linked up with Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now.
- It occurred to me recently, when I came across posts with reading and math activities for the very young, that some people may get the wrong idea when I talk about “early” math and language. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about teaching math and language “early.” In fact, I sort of advocate the opposite. I mean “early” as in developed before more complex and less concrete math and language skills. If that makes any sense. Hopefully you catch my drift. ↩