The Joy and Importance of "Math Talk" for Toddlers

As parents, we all have felt the thrill of hearing our children count for the first time. We’ve been preparing them for that moment and, once it happens, we find ourselves doing toddler math everywhere.

“How many crackers on your tray? One…two…” “I spy three cars on the street.” “Mommy has two eyes, one nose…”.

Soon, conversation with our toddlers has become a stream of counting exercises. We’re just doing what comes naturally, delighting in how our children sponge up information and ideas.

These joyful counting exercises do hold an important purpose for our kiddos. We are preparing our children to function in the world, one number at a time. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (“NAEYC”), math knowledge upon entering kindergarten is a better predictor of your child’s academic success than early reading or attention skills.

Counting is one of the fundamental building blocks of that knowledge. The sooner we can help our toddlers grasp number concepts, the more prepared they will be to succeed.

When Do Toddlers Typically Start Counting?

According to this child development tracker from PBS Parents, children as young as eighteen months can begin to show a rudimentary understanding of quantities. Such as, pointing to “two shoes” or knowing whether one quantity is “more” or “less” than another. By the time they turn three, the average child has learned to count in order to three. They may even be able to “enumerate” items, pointing at and labeling each one with a number.

Enumeration becomes more common by the time children reach the age of four. They’ll have some ability to identify the next number in a sequence (“one, two, three, four…what comes next?”), and to identify a number of items without going through the numbers leading up to it.

How Do Toddlers Acquire Counting Skills?

Children instinctually gravitate toward learning to count, because, as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (“NCTM”) points out, they have a natural curiosity for numbers. They observe grown-ups rely on counting every day, from the numbers that flash on a gas pump to considerations of price and quantity that parents do at the grocery store.

Our toddlers become aware of number concepts by observing people’s varying heights, seeing different quantities of food on their plates, and noticing the symmetry of their fingers and toes. A toddler’s desire to learn numbers goes hand-in-hand with their growing need to communicate ideas using language, the same way Mommy and Daddy do.

Can We Parents Strengthen Our Toddler’s Counting Skills?

Yes! We’re already doing it by instinct and out of the sheer joy of seeing our little ones grow and learn. Working counting into everyday conversation with our toddlers throughout the day, what the NAEYC calls “math talk,” is by far the easiest and most natural means of teaching counting. And there are so many opportunities to do it!

The NAEYC offers many creative ideas, from turning bath time into counting time, to going on a cotton ball hunt or counting liners in muffin tins. You can also work counting and other math ideas into your toddler’s free play. There are counting opportunities at meal time, on car rides or even changing diapers!

There are also some wonderful children’s books that involve counting (Have You Seen My Dragon, by Steve Light, is a personal favorite). Any book can become a counting opportunity. Merely by tallying the images on a page or by flipping the pages themselves.

So, count with your toddler today! Every toe, pea or passing car counted plants the seeds of mathematical curiosity that your little one needs to grow and blossom.

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