Two preschoolers are watching a parade. "Look! There are the clowns! All different colors!" yells Paul. "Yeah. And here are three horses!" exclaims his friend, Nathan. Both children are having a great experience, but only Nathan is having a mathematical experience. Another child might see white, brown, and dappled horses. Nathan sees the same colors, but he also sees a quantity — three horses. Why does one child notice the number of horses, while the other one does not? Most likely, Nathan's family notices numbers — and talks about them. This has helped Nathan develop an important early math skill: number recognition.
Children are sensitive to quantity surprisingly early in life. For example, in one study of 6-month-old babies, infants were shown three pictures — with one dot, two dots, and three dots. As each baby gazed at the pictures they heard three drumbeats, and their eyes moved to the picture with three dots. The study reveals that infants are sensitive to quantity. Does that mean babies "know" numbers? Not in the same way that older children know three. For example, a baby would not know that three is more than two. But at an intuitive level, this is the beginning of number awareness.
Building on Number Awareness
Although all children are sensitive to numbers, they need help to develop that sense into a full number concept. And it's easy to help! One of the most simple, but powerful, things you can do is talk about numbers. Every time you notice and name a number out loud ("Oops. I dropped three crayons") you sensitize your child to numbers, teach her a number word, and help her make the connection to a specific quantity. And if you do it consistently, you are doing much more: You are encouraging her to think of the world in terms of numbers and helping her to spontaneously recognize them. This is a gift that keeps on giving. With this knowledge, your child can create hundreds, or thousands, of mathematical experiences for herself - all of which create a rich foundation for understanding quantity, counting, comparison, and other mathematical skills.
The key is to be alert to naming small groups of things, whenever it is appropriate. For example, if you are playing outside together, you might say, "Look, there are two airplanes in the sky!" Or when your child is playing with his friends, you can ask, "Do all three of you want to play with the blocks?" Be especially alert to situations when naming the number in groups of objects is important to your child. "You drew four baby horses! Are you going to draw four mommy horses, too?" Stick to naming quantities of small groups, though; it's much harder for children to recognize numbers in large groups. Unless the groups are arranged in certain ways, like on dice, the limit is usually a group of four to six items.
Early number-recognition skills support the development of other number skills, such as counting. For example, one of the most fundamental ideas about counting that many children do not grasp is this: The last counting word tells "how many." Children will count three objects, but then, when asked how many there are, they will re-count. But if a child recognizes groups of one, two, and three, then when he counts out one, he sees he has one; when he counts out two, he sees he has two; and when he counts three, he sees three. He relates the counting to what he already knows, and so the counting is more meaningful.
Seeing the World in Numbers
Over time, number recognition develops into more sophisticated abilities, such as instantly seeing how many (an ability known as subitizing, from the Latin word meaning suddenly). Subitizing is the direct, immediate recognition of the number of a group. For example, if someone shows you four fingers for only an instant, you recognize how many they are holding up without counting. This kind of speedy recognition is important because later it will help children with adding. Many children add 4 + 3 by counting out four objects, then three objects, then counting all seven. The trouble with this is that their memory of the three and four is too far away from the total seven for the child to make a connection. But if a child is able to subitize the four, she is more likely to count on, starting with four, then five, six, and seven. Then she learns a more sophisticated counting strategy and start learning the "fact" that 4 + 3 = 7.
So, be sure to notice and name numbers. Talk about how many objects appear in small groups everywhere around you. It's sure to put your child on the path to math literacy, because it not only teaches your child about numbers, it starts a mathematical habit of mind that will allow her to continue to teach herself.