Field of Science

How do children learn to count? Part 1

How do children learn to count? You could imagine that numbers are words, and children learn them like any other word. (Actually, this wouldn't help much, since we still don't really understand how children learn words, but it would neatly deflect the question.) However, it turns out that children learn to count in a bizarre fashion quite unlike how they learn about other words.

If you have a baby and a few years to spend, you can try this experiment at home. Every day, show you baby a bowl of marbles and ask her to give you one. Wait until your baby can do this. This actually takes some time, during which you'll either get nothing or maybe a handful of marbles.

Then, one day, between 24 and 30 months of age, your toddler will hand you a single marble. But ask for 2 marbles or 3 marbles, etc., your toddler will give you a handful. The number of marbles won't be systematically larger if you ask for 10 than if you ask for 2. This is particularly odd, because because by this age the child typically can recite the count list ("one, two, three, four...").

Keep trying this, and within 6-9 months, the child will start giving you 2 marbles when asked for, but still give a random handful when asked for 3 or 4 or 5, etc. Wait a bit longer, and the child will manage to give you 1, 2 or 3 when asked, but still fail for numbers greater than 3.

This doesn't continue forever, though. At around 3 years old, children suddenly are able to succeed when asked for any set of numbers. They can truly count. (This is work done by Karen Wynn some years ago, who is now a professor of psychology at Yale University.)

Of course, this is just a description of what children do. What causes this strange pattern of behavior? We seem to be, as a field, homing in on the answer, and in my next post I'll describe some new research that sheds light onto the question.


Unknown said...

My toddler is 20 months and can and does count to two, she'll point to an object like a flower and say the objects name, then she'll point to another, say the name again and then say two flower. Is she merely copying the way I might say things or does she have some sort of concept of numbers? I'm going to try the the experiment you describe.

josh said...

It's hard to say. There is certainly lots of variation from kid to kid, and yours could simply be precocious. But I would suggest using the give-a-number task to see if this is a memorized routine or something she can actually employ on the fly.

Anonymous said...

My 16 month old understands one, two, three and at times, four. She has more trouble deciding there are three or four items present, but when she's in a "focused" mood (LOL - rare for a toddler, I know), she can do it easily. She never has trouble with one or two. She can count to 13, but understands the actual CONCEPT of amounts in increments of 1-4.