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Learning to Count – as Easy as 1-2-3

Books and Everyday Activities Make Learning Fun and Easy --

Understanding the world around us would be impossible without numbers.  Psychologists tell us that we seem to come into the world knowing to pay special attention to them.  Even young babies can tell the difference between small amounts and have a basic understanding of more and less.1,2,3   This sense of number may start early, but learning about numbers can, and should, last a lifetime.  Most children don’t count reliably to 10 until around age five.  But there are those who can count, or make a very good attempt, much sooner than that.  The more time a child spends counting before she enters kindergarten the better off she will be.  In fact, a child’s understanding of the principles of counting and simple math concepts by kindergarten is a key predictor of later school success.  Principles of counting?  Without even realizing it, we are following five basic principles each and every time we count:

  1. Count each object only once.
  2. Assign numbers to objects in the same order each time: 1-2-3-4….
  3. The last number you count is the number of objects in the set.
  4. You can count the objects themselves in any order.
  5. The principles above apply to any set of objects you count.

Of course, you don’t need to teach these principles to your child.  She will learn them over time with lots of repetition and practice with counting.  And then, in much the same way she comes to understand that words on a page contain meaning, she will recognize that numbers represent different quantities and can be used to solve simple problems.  Your child learns best through everyday routines and conversations with you, so it’s easy to help your child learn about numbers as you go about your day together.

are a wonderful springboard for learning.  Many children’s books feature numbers, counting, and simple math concepts like more and less.  Introduce your child to them early and return to them often.  Make sure to continue the learning from the books in your everyday interactions in the world around you.  Here are some BEGIN WITH BOOKS favorites to get you started – and some fun and simple ideas on how to incorporate counting and simple math into daily activities in a playful way:


Sassy, Let’s Count! A First Book of Numbers

Grosset & Dunlap, Dave Aikins (Illustrator)
(A BWB Imagination Library October 2020 selection) 

This bright, sturdy board book is a great first choice for introducing numbers to your baby and practicing with them to count to 10. 

TIP: Don’t simply read the text: point and count each object on the page and emphasize the last number.  Then repeat how many objects there are.  For example, say the number 5 and then point to each sock as you count to 5.  When you get to the 5th and last sock, say 5 a little louder and dwell on it a little longer.  Then say, “There are 5 socks.”  Be sure to ask, “How many socks are there?”  If your child is able, have him point along with you, repeat after you, or ask him to take the lead.


One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me!

John Micklos Jr., Clive McFarland
(A BWB Imagination Library May 2020 selection)

New green leaves appear one by one in the Spring, so by the summer, there’s a full canopy of bright green leaves.  Then as autumn winds blow, the leaves change color and fall from the tree one after another, until winter arrives and there are no more leaves left on the tree.  The numerals are big and bold, the leaves easy to count and your child will love pointing out the birds, bunnies, and squirrels hidden among the trees.  But this is so much more than a counting book! While helping your child learn her numbers 1-10, you can talk about how we, and our little forest friends, notice the changing seasons through colors, weather, and nature.  It’s a math, science, and literacy lesson all in one. 

TIP: Don’t think of this book, or any book, as a lesson.  Children learn best when reading is kept light and playful.  Your goal is to make books and reading a positive experience your child looks forward to. 


Goodnight, Numbers

Danica McKellar, Alicia Padrón (Illustrator)
(A BWB Imagination Library January 2021 selection)

This unique counting book makes for a perfect bedtime read.  Channeling Goodnight Moon, it sneakily incorporates counting concepts as your child says goodnight to all sorts of things on the page.  Each number from 1 – 10 has so many things to count.  Take the number 6 for example – 6 flowers, 6 blocks, 6 music notes, 6 snaps, 6 lightbulbs, and 6 bunnies spread around the room.  At the back of the book, there’s even a letter for parents and tips on how to get the most out of the book. 

TIP: Make numbers a part of your child’s bedtime routine as he says good night to things in his own room.  


Just One More

Jennifer Hansen Rolli
(A BWB Imagination Library June 2016 selection, bilingual English-Spanish)

This bilingual book is a great way to play with the concept of quantity.  In it Ruby just needs one more of so many things – one more minute of sleep, one more thingy for her hair, just one more wish, and one more scoop on her ice-cream cone…and one more, and one more….

TIP Make sure your child gets one more story at bedtime!

Simple ways to make counting and numbers a fun part of your child’s everyday routines

Infants and Toddlers

  • Sing songs that have basic counting or rhyming patterns, like “One, two, buckle your shoe…”
  • Count your baby’s toes when you’re changing her diaper or at bathtime.
  • Count the steps as you walk up and down them when holding your baby.
  • At the grocery store, ask your toddler to help you count out 3 apples or 2 boxes of crackers and put them in the grocery cart.
  • Play “silly stacks” with your toddler.  Stack two blocks or objects and then ask her, “Do you want one more?”  Keep offering “one more” for her to add to the stack.  This teaches her the meaning of “one” and “more”—both important math concepts
  • Before putting your toddler to bed, ask if she wants 2 kisses or 3 kisses.  Count aloud as you give each kiss. 

Toddlers and Preschoolers

  • As you sort and fold laundry, count with your child to discover how many t-shirts, pants, socks and pairs of socks.   
  • Pose simple number problems, such as “Grandma is coming to dinner.  How many plates should we put on the table?”
  • Play board games like chutes and ladders, or find printable board games on-line.
  • Take a walk with your preschooler and count steps to the mailbox or to the car.  Ask “how many” questions such as “how many steps from the front door to the sidewalk?”  Or as you walk, play a game where you and your child need to take 3 big steps, or find 5 stones, or touch 7 leaves.    
  • Introduce simple math concepts like size comparisons or shapes: point out how much bigger a tree is than a shrub or a flower, for example, or find shapes in road signs, houses, or sidewalks.
  • As you can see, there are so many fun ways to help your child learn to count and begin to think about counting as a way to solve everyday number problems.  Just as books and reading should always be a pleasurable activity, learning to count and playing with numbers should always be a positive experience.  So, make sure your little one starts kindergarten with countless experiences with counting and watch her love of math begin to soar!

-- Caron Bell, PhD, Early Childhood Development, and volunteer 


1Wynn, K.  (1995).  Infants possess a system of numerical knowledge.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4, 172-177.
2Canfield, R.L., & Smith, E.G.  (1996).  Number-based expectations and sequential enumeration by 5-month old infants.  Developmental Psychology, 32, 269-279.
3Wynn, K.  (1992a).  Addition and Subtraction by human infants.  Nature, 358, 749-750.


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