While most of us aren’t destined to become talented mathematicians, a basic familiarity with numbers is essential in much of modern life.
There is evidence to show that helping children develop numeracy in younger life can yield benefits with maths as they grow up and enter schooling.
Ages and counting
Although some caution is required when trying to assign ages and any other development milestones to children, experimental studies indicate that many children by around the age of two are capable of recognising small numbers.
That means they will recognise that there are two or three toys and that they can be picked up in subsets of their total. However, once the child sees more than around 3 objects, they won’t recognise them as a ‘number’, just ‘a lot’. To progress further, they will need to develop a strategy for counting.
As a slight aside, even in adults, the instant recognition figure in a group is usually only around 5-6 items. After that, we usually also need to start counting.
Around 4 years of age, a child should start to become much more comfortable with the idea of “more than 3” and have developed the basic technique of counting to low numbers.
This is the very start of number work.
What you can do to help your child to develop numeracy skills
Here are some top tips to help your child develop comfort with numbers and numeric content but do keep in mind that each child is different and some may take more readily to numbers than others in the early stages. That may mean nothing in terms of their later development of maths skills:
- play number counting games with their fingers and toes. They probably won’t fully understand to begin with but they will be interested and want to understand what you’re doing and why;
- count into their bowl the spoons of food you’re putting in. That will help the baby/toddler start to associate higher numbers and words with bigger quantities. In that sense, they’ll associate bigger numbers here with the idea of ‘more’. If they’re talking, encourage them to join in but remember, even if they emulate your sounds, they may not fully understand them at this stage;
- find a toy set of scales with weights (not swallowable). Play games with your child balancing the scales with weights on both sides. That encourages more sense of numbers and how numbers affect each other;
- play ‘pretend sweetie shop’ where you’re serving. A tiny bit of invention and you can start to encourage them to play with numbers and even simple arithmetic. For example, ask them “if I’ve given you 2 red and 2 blue sweeties, how many do you now have in your packet?”;
- the old favourite of “count to the biggest number you can” is always great fun.
A few associated pieces of advice
Many children at a very early age, pick up negative thoughts towards numbers from their parents and other siblings. If so, that can be very, VERY difficult for teachers to remedy later in school.
So, try and always make numbers sound like fun and easy/natural.
Another important point is to avoid putting too much emphasis on ‘wrong answers’ when they’re young. Instead, make a joke, explain and encourage them to have another go but don’t criticise, rebuke or mock the child’s efforts.
Very roughly, by the age of 5 most children should be capable of extended counting to at least 10 and some simple arithmetic of the 2+2 variety. They should also be capable of identifying small numbers when written down into the tens or possibly hundreds.
Recognising that say 20 is bigger than 10 is also usually mastered by this age.
If your child has not yet achieved that level, don’t worry. What is sometimes called “number blindness” is very rare. If you have any concerns, you should consult a specialist in child development.