Understanding Numbers and Counting Skills in Preschoolers

By Kristin Stanberry

You’re probably in the habit of measuring your preschooler’s growth by checking his or her height and weight. But how can you measure your child’s development in other areas, such as numbers and counting — early math skills?

Think about all the ways that numbers and counting are part of your child’s life! From soapy toes in the bathtub to “get ready-set-go!” in the yard, you are well positioned to observe and gather information about the early math skills your 3- to 4-year-old child is developing. The questions and tips that follow will help you understand what math awareness and skills your child should have — and how you can support his development.

Is your child developing age-appropriate numbers and counting skills?

It’s helpful to know what numbers and counting skills your child should be developing by age 3 or 4. Review the following list of milestones and note how your child is doing in each area. My child:

  • Is aware of — and curious about — how numbers and counting apply to his life and the world around him.
  • Can correctly count at least five objects.
  • Can point to places on a number line and count with 1-to-1 correspondence along the line (from left to right, right to left)
  • Understands that the written numeral “3” means three objects — and the same with numerals 1-5.
  • Can add and subtract small numbers of familiar objects. For example: “I have three cookies. You have two. How many do we have all together?”
  • Can put written numbers (numerals) from 1 to 5 in the correct order, small to large.
  • Can count from one to ten in the correct order.
  • Understands concepts of quantity (for example, “more” and “less”) and size (such as, “bigger” and “smaller”) and uses those terms correctly.

Encouraging numbers and counting skills at home

Now that you are aware of some of the basic math skills and concepts your preschooler should have, you can reinforce and build upon these skills. There are many ways you and your child can play with numbers and counting throughout the day. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Show your child how numbers and counting apply to everyday life. Use number words, point out numbers, and involve your child in counting activities as you go through your day. For example: Have your child help you measure ingredients for a recipe by measuring and counting the number of cups or spoonfuls. Talk about how things or amounts are more, less, bigger and smaller, and be sure to praise his efforts and his progress in math awareness.
  • Collect a variety of materials your child can use for hands-on counting. Old keys, plastic bottle caps, and buttons all work well. Collect them in a bag or jar and pick a time to count and re-count them again and again. (For added fun, offer guesses at the total number of items and see who comes the closest.)
  • Use items from around the house to experiment with addition, subtraction and “more” and “less” activities.
  • Read, tell stories, sing songs, and recite poems that include numbers and counting. Try to include books in which characters come and go as the story progresses.
  • Play simple board games that call on players to count spaces on the board, objects used in the game, and to recognize printed numerals or their representation (such as “dots on dice”).

Note: If your child has a regular babysitter or daycare provider, be sure to pass these tips along to the caregiver.

Promoting number and counting skills at preschool

The preschool classroom is filled with opportunities to learn and practice number and counting skills. Be sure to talk to your child’s teacher about structured teaching activities to develop skills in this area. To keep track of your child’s progress in early math skills, you’ll want to:

  • Ask your child’s teacher what early math lessons, games, and activities your child is exposed to and where your child is succeeding or struggling.
  • Find out what early math skills your child will need to master in ensure a smooth start of the kindergarten year
  • Look at the work and projects your child brings home from school. Look for numbers and counting themes and elements and discuss them together.
  • Encourage your child to talk about school and whether she finds numbers and counting interesting (or difficult).

Cause for concern? Where to turn for advice and assistance

Rest assured that “normal” development of beginning math skills doesn’t progress in exactly the same way for all preschoolers. However, you may want to seek help if your child:

  • Has difficulty with simple counting.
  • Doesn’t understand the one-to-one correspondence between number symbols and items/objects.
  • Doesn’t seem to understand or notice variations in size, patterns, or shapes.
  • Doesn’t see how math concepts exist in everyday life, even when examples are pointed out to him or her.
  • Dislikes and avoids activities and games that involve numbers and counting.

Discuss your concerns with your child’s preschool teacher and pediatrician. If you’re concerned that your child may have a learning disability or delay, you should contact your public school system and request (in writing) that a diagnostic screening (at no cost to you) be conducted (available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, topics which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


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