How do young children estimate the number of objects they see?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    When figuring out how many objects they see, some children rely on counting the objects one-by-one, while others simply estimate at a glance. In this study, we want to know whether the type of object they see might influence children’s strategies.

    In this study, we first ask children to count a variety of pictures and objects. We may ask them to pick out a certain number of toys from a pile, or choose a card that has a certain number of animals pictured on it. This will help us learn more about children’s counting abilities. Children also play two games on a computer where they must estimate the number of shapes they see on the screen. In the first game, children see two pictures containing different numbers of shapes. Some of the pictures will show many shapes with the same shape and color (e.g., all red circles) and some of the pictures will show a mixture of different shapes and different colors (e.g., blue squares, red circles, green triangles). We ask children to point to the picture that they think has more items in it. In the second computer game, children will see one picture containing different numbers of shapes, some with mixed shapes and some with similar looking shapes. Children will then be asked to guess how many objects they just saw on the screen.

    We predict that the pictures with mixed shapes and colors will be more difficult for children to estimate than the pictures with just one kind of shape. We also want to find out whether children’s counting ability in the first part of the study is related to their ability to estimate numbers of shapes in the second part.

    This study will help us understand how children begin to understand the meaning of numbers, and how they use counting and estimation to solve problems in everyday life.

    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

    Estimating Fish

    Find the fish tank near the entrance to the Discovery Center. Have your child estimate how many fish there are in the tank.

    How many fish does your child guess are in the tank? Does s/he think there are more fish or more big brown rocks? Does s/he think there are more fish, or more plants?

    Do any of your child’s responses surprise you? Think about what might influence your child’s estimates.

    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 does s/he not yet grasp? Try practicing counting with your child, 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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