When it comes to mathematical skills for young children one of the most important, and most under-valued, is the skill of counting.
There are two types of counting, or two ways we use the word “counting”. There is counting aloud, saying the number words in the right order, and there is counting things. As children get older and more proficient the “things” they are counting can be harder, smaller, different sizes, movable, immovable and even things like “movements” or claps.
First, counting aloud. This is also called “rote” counting. It is the saying of the number words in the right order. This is a really undervalued skill! It underpins so many other parts of mathematics and having this secure is vital.
If you can rote count, then you have the beginnings of addition and subtraction. That is because knowing what order the numbers are in allows you to compare the size of numbers – I say 11 after I say 4 when counting up, so it must be bigger.
Understanding their relative positions when counting allows you to do several things. If I know that 5 is next to 4 and 6, then I know 1 more than 5 is 6, and 1 less than 5 is 4. If you know what numbers are next to a each other it gives you a head start when starting your counting at a number that isn’t 1. This underpins the skill they need later to be able to “count on” when adding or “count back” when subtracting – 7+2, start at 7 and count on 2 more “7, 8, 9”. Having a secure knowledge of the order the numbers sit in also allows children to begin to work on a mental “number line” which helps them with mental maths skills later.
Counting things involves a lot of other skills as well as being able to say the numbers in the right order. There’s a really great publication that talks about the processes or phases of learning mathematical skills. It splits the skills of counting things into developmental phases which is really interesting – take a look here https://www.foundationyears.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Numbers_and_Patterns.pdf
This list of counting skills is on page 10:
keeping track of the objects counted;
recognising that the number associated with the last object touched is the total number of
counting things you cannot move, touch or see, or counting objects of very different sizes;
knowing when to stop, when counting out a number of objects from a larger set;
recognising small numbers of objects without counting them (subitising);
making a reasonable estimate of a number of objects without counting;
recognising that, if a group of objects already counted is rearranged, the total number stays the same (conservation of number);
partitioning and recombining small groups of objects;
comparing the size of quantities;
recognising that if objects are added or removed, the number of objects changes (addition or
counting on or back to add or subtract.
When it comes to counting things the only way to do it is practice. At nursery we talk about why we're doing things the way we're doing them too. For example recently we've been practising "keeping track of the objects counted" by showing children they can line up the thing they are counting, or move them from one place to another so they know they've been counted.
For both skills there is a lot we can do at home to support children of all ages.
1. Count aloud a lot. Children need to hear important things from us in lots of different contexts and counting is a good example. So count while you climb the stairs and then sum up “look 10 steps”, count while you change a nappy “Two wipes today, 1 2”, and also just rote count so they can hear the pattern of numbers.
2. Use number rhymes when you’re singing together, or when doing tasks with your child, eg getting them dressed.
3. Don’t forget to count down too. Lots of the time we count only use numbers going up from 1, but children need to hear that numbers also count down. When you’re just starting to do this start from 5 and count down to 0. You can make this playful like “here comes your breakfast in 5 4 3 2 1 0!”
4. Talk about the number of things they are using, playing with, making etc. So not just “I really like your picture, can you tell me about it?” but also “I can see you used two colours today, blue and yellow. Look, one, two.” Or “We have a lot of blocks, who has the most?” If they are able to you can help them count to check.
5. Talk about the numbers specific to your life, like the number of your house, the number of the bus, the number of their age. Sometimes you can ask questions about these things too, “How old will you be next birthday?”
6. Ask open-ended questions to help them to think and use what they know to answer you, eg “How can we make sure there are enough cups for everyone?” “Why can’t I wear your shoes?” “What could we do to make sure we remember how many apples to buy?” or just pose a thought “I wonder what would happen if…” is one of my favourites and it works for all sorts of things, “I wonder what would happen if I use all the long blocks for my tower” “I wonder what would happen if we only use yellow cars for this game?”
7. If you have an iPad or iPhone you could consider investing in “Maths, age 3 – 5” from developer ‘onebillion’. It is expensive at £21.99 but it is also extremely comprehensive and would be an excellent addition to your home learning tool kit. If your child already has a lot of mathematical skills you may want to get “Maths, age 4 – 6” instead and you’re welcome to check with us which one we think you should choose.
Saying and singing a variety of number rhymes helps your child learn and practice the order numbers go in. Some of our favourites are:
1 2 3 4 5 once I caught a fish alive
5 little speckled frogs
Here is the beehive
5 little ducks went swimming one day
And there’s lots more here - https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/school-radio/nursery-rhymes-counting-songs/zn67kmn