Counting and identifing how many things there are – it seems like a simple concept to those of us who mastered it many years ago but for some of our little people it can be extremely challenging. The most common difficulty I see with young children who are struggling with these concepts is a parent reporting “he can count to 5 but then has no idea other times”. Often what they are describing is in fact their child’s ability to repeat a rote learned sequence of words but without clear association of those words with specific quantities. For example if you say to most normally developing 2 year olds “One…Two…” they will pipe up with “Three!” because they have learned it as a predictable word pattern the same as they have learned “Ready…Set…GO!”.
The key is to move beyond just counting towards recognising a given quantity without needing to go through the whole sequence. A great way to start this is by contrasting pairs of things with single things eg “Look, I have two eyes, two ears, two legs, two noses…oh no I got mixed up I only have ONE nose. What about you?” Then start counting things just comparing one and two eg “one sheep, two cats”. Whenever you can add the written numerals (eg 2) and number words (eg two) on flashcards into these activities. Use some household objects (eg cutlery or toys) and match them with the relevant flashcard depending on whether there’s one or two things.
Once your child is able to identify one and two you can then expand this to include numbers 1-5. Beware of counting everything in sequence as this only reinforces the learned sequence which although important at the early stages it is more useful for children to associate a quantity with a given number. You can also talk about how each number is one more than or one less than another number and what happens when you add an extra object or take one away. Have fun with these ideas to help your child learn early number concepts!