Counting with infants and toddlers

Counting can easily be implemented into the day in natural ways with children.

Boy counting

Counting can be a fun task for young children. Children will begin by counting forward and should be provided a lot of experience practicing this new skill. They will also begin to recognize written number symbols.

As you read books with children, be intentional about pointing out numbers on the page and saying, “That is the number four,” and count on your fingers one, two, three, and four. Or say, “Can you find the number four?” and see if your child can locate it on the page. Mistakes are allowed and when they occur, guide them in a positive way to the number you are requesting on the page. A good example of a book that helps with this skill is “5 Little Monkeys Jumping on a Bed.” You can always model counting backwards, but this is a difficult concept for young children to master. When counting backwards, don’t forget about zero.

Kids will start out as “pre-counters” saying numbers in no particular order. For example, they may say “One, two, ten” when counting. This is typical of a two-year-old child. When this happens, simply model by counting the objects again with them without correcting their initial effort. They will hear you do it the correct way and over time learn the correct order themselves. For any child, shaming or criticizing is counterproductive to learning any new skill and learning to count is no different.

The next level is “chanters.” At this stage, children may say numbers in a sequence but run them together. In addition, if the child is interrupted, they will have to start over at the beginning versus where they left off at. Finally, “reciters” can verbally count to 5, 10 and then so on. This is a very advance skill and should not be expected during this age period.

A more advance level of math is one-to-one correspondence. This is also typical of a three-to-four-year-old child. They will be able to point at objects and count them as the same time. For example, if your child has a variety of cars in front of them, place them in a straight line (start in a straight line for beginners) and have your child point or touch each car as he or she counts them. Model this with infants and toddlers.

Michigan State University Extension provides the following ideas to extend exposure to counting with young children:

  • Use math talk: “I have more crackers then you do. Let’s count 1,2,3…” “You have two eyes and so does your bear. Let’s count 1, 2.”
  • Sing number songs like “5 Little Speckled Frogs” or “5 little monkeys jumping on the bed”
  • Model counting strategies by slowly pointing to each object and saying the number name.

Books that teach counting:

  • “What comes in 2’s, 3’s & 4’s?” by Suzanne Aker
  • “Big Fat Hen” by Keith Baker
  • “Quack and Count” by Keith Baker
  • “Rooster’s off to see the World” by Eric Carle
  • “Each Orange had 8 Slices, a Counting Book” by Paul Giganti, Jr. and Donald Crews
  • “One is a Snail, Ten is a Crab” by April Pulley Sayre, Jeff Sayre, and Randy Cecil

Other resources from the National Association for the Education of Young Children:


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