Can practicing help children learn the meaning of number words?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children can recite the numbers one through ten long before they understand exactly what those words mean or how counting works. This study seeks to understand when and how children learn what number words mean, and whether practicing can help very young children learn how to count.

    In the first part of the study, children (ages 2-5) will be asked to count as high as they can. To measure children’s understanding of number words, we’ll then ask them to pick out a certain number of toys from a pile (e.g., “Can you make TWO ducks jump in the pond?”). We predict that children might be able to give one or two toys at a time before they are able to give a higher number of toys.

    Next, we will practice counting with children using cards with pictures of different numbers of animals. We’ll focus on one particular number, counting up to that number each time (e.g., “This card has THREE animals. See: 1, 2, 3!”). After practicing, we’ll show children two cards at a time, and ask them to pick out the card with the number that they just practiced.

    Finally, we’ll play the first counting game once more, asking children to make one, two, three, or more ducks jump in the pond. If practice helps children learn how counting works in general, they may find it easier to select the correct number of toys from the pile after the card game.

    These results will help us understand how children learn to count and whether practice can improve this ability.

    Posid, T., & Cordes, S. (2015). Verbal Counting Moderates Perceptual Biases Found in Children's Cardinality Judgments. Journal of Cognition and Development, 16(4), 621-637.

    This research is conducted by the Infant and Child Cognition Lab at Boston College.

        » Infant and Child Cognition Lab at Boston College

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Counting Butterflies

    Find the Butterflies Toddler Box in the Children’s Gallery of the Discovery Center. First, practice identifying the colors and patterns of the butterflies. Then, ask your child to hand you the “three green butterflies” or the “one blue butterfly.” See if giving additional information improves their counting abilities!

    Parts of a Whole

    Many objects are in fact made up of multiple smaller parts. Find a puzzle in the Discovery Center. Show your child that it starts as one object, but can be broken into multiple parts. Count the parts as you assemble the puzzle!

    Activities to Try at Home

    Practicing numbers

    Set up a pile of toys, blocks, or other objects. Ask your child to give you one. Then ask for two, then three, etc. Which numbers does your child already understand? Which do they not yet grasp? Try practicing counting with them, using objects from the pile. Connecting the number of objects with the word for each number is an important cognitive skill that all children develop over time. Try this activity again each week and watch how your child’s understanding of numbers develops!

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