When do children learn the difference between small and large numbers?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children learn about small numbers before they begin to understand larger numbers, and very young children often cannot distinguish between a small number and a larger number (e.g., two toys versus four toys). This study seeks to understand at what age children begin to understand small and large numbers, and how they learn to tell the difference.

    In this study, we ask young children (ages 1.5 to 3 years) to look for some objects placed inside of a box. We place either two, three or four objects in the box, and let children search for them. Sometimes we secretly remove some of the objects from the box before we give it to children, to see what they will do if some of the objects are missing. For example, we may show the child that we are placing three toys in the box, but secretly remove some before we give the box to the child to play with. Or we may place four objects in the box, but secretly remove two before giving the box to the child. We want to know how long children will keep searching for the missing objects. This would tell us that they understand the number of objects that “should” be in the box.

    We predict that when two objects are placed in the box, young children will continue to search for the second object if it is missing. However, when three or four objects are placed in the box, children may not notice if one or two of them are suddenly missing. This would show that children understand small numbers but not larger numbers yet.

    These results will help us understand how and when children come to understand the difference between small and large numbers.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Infant & Child Cognition Lab at Boston College

        » Infant & Child Cognition Lab

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Shapes by Touch

    Find the pretend flower and “nectar packets” in the Children’s Gallery of the Discovery Center. Remove all the nectar from the flower. Have your child watch as you place a certain number of nectar packets in the flower (one, two, three, or four). Ask your child to close his or her eyes while s/he retrieves the nectar from the flower. Does your child keep searching until all of the nectar packets are retrieved? If not, at what number does s/he stop searching?

    How Many Bobwhites?

    Find the Bobwhite Display in the Natural History area of the Discovery Center. Notice there is a nest containing the eggs of some recently hatched chicks — but where are the chicks? Ask your child to find 4 Bobwhites. Does your child continue looking until 4 are found, or is s/he satisfied after finding 2 or 3? Try counting along as you find Bobwhites to see if this strategy helps your child search longer. Can you count more than 4 Bobwhite chicks?

    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? Practice counting using the objects. Connecting the number of objects with the word for each number is an important cognitive skill that children develop over time. Try this activity again each week and watch how your child’s understanding of numbers develops!

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