How to Teach a Toddler to Count

There are many ways you can go about teaching your little one how to count. The simplest way to teach counting is by asking your child basic and relevant questions and giving verbal and visual cues contingent to your child’s response.  By basic, we mean, using a level of language that is appropriate for your child’s chronological age (also see the Hierarchy of Asking Questions); by relevant, we mean that the question is referring to something that is concrete and in context of your immediate environment, e.g., one should not begin by asking, “Do you want a churro?” when a child is sitting at a kitchen table with only a bowl of apples in front of them.  Let’s start by teaching 0 versus 1, or “no” versus “yes.”

Teaching 0 versus 1 by asking, “Do you want?”

Using basic speech and language skills such as understanding and responding to the simple question, “Do you want ___?” with  “yes” or “no,” can facilitate learning how to count.  One of the best times to teach numbers concepts by asking a “Do you want___?” question is during a daily routine such as playtime, bedtime, and snack time.   For example, during snack time you may ask your child, “Do you want a banana?” and s/he will (should) answer, “yes” or “no” (nodding head, “yes” and shaking head, “no” also count!).  If your child answered, “yes,” you would then give a banana to your child and verbally exclaim, “*[child’s name] has 1 banana!” while providing the associated visual cue of the number, 1, with your finger. Then add, “Mommy has no bananas,” while providing the associated visual cue of the number, 0 , with your hand. If your child said, “no,” you could just hold the banana yourself and say, “Mommy has 1 banana!” and “[child’s name] has no bananas” while using the associated visual cues with the numbers, 0 and 1.

*Note: using “you” versus” I” is confusing to most young children and should be avoided when teaching new concepts unless the child can clearly understand and use, “you” and “I” (or “me”); using your child’s name instead of “you” will assist with comprehension of the math concepts as there will be no other language variable possibly confounding learning.

Teaching 2-10 by asking, “How Many?” with a Choice Question

If your child has a favorite snack/toy, where s/he usually wants more than one morsel/item, such as Cheerios or raisins, you can teach the remaining number concepts of 2-10 by asking a follow-up “How many?” question after your “Do you want?” question coupled with a choice question and accompanying verbal and visual cues. For example:

Mom: “Do you want Cheerios?”
Child: “Yes!”
Mom: “How many Cheerios do you want? 1 or 2?” [while showing the number with fingers so your child can “see” it]
Child: “1” (or) “2” [Your child will most likely imitate one of the numbers and say “1” or “2”; sometimes your child may surprise you and say ,“3”, especially if s/he is shaping up to be a comedian]
Mom: Gives child the requested number of Cheerios [while counting number of Cheerios out loud] and states “Wow, [*child’s name] has two Cheerios!”
–>Child begins to associate number with quantity.

By hearing you count the number of items while you give them to your child and seeing the associated number (with your fingers) while you name the number, your child will begin to associate numbers with their respective quantities.   You may even be surprised by how quickly your child will start negotiating with you for larger quantities of his or her favorite snack!

Once you have introduced counting through some basic conversation, reinforce number concepts in a variety of different ways:

Make Shapes

Use different shapes to observe their different number of edges.  Grab a long piece of ribbon. Lay it straight. Count:1. Then bend it exactly in the middle (once) and make a “V” to count the edges: 2. Then take your ribbon and bend it twice to make an equilateral triangle and count the edges: 3. Next, bend the ribbon three times to make a square. Do it again and make a rectangle.  Observe their differences. Continue making other shapes if desired such as the pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, nonagon, decagon, and circle (0). Then open it up again back to the start: 1. Now use the long ribbon to help your child “write” the numbers by shaping the ribbon into their Arabic numerals: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 10.

Read Books

Read picture books together with visual cues of numbers of objects associated with printed numbers. Check out the following counting books: “Ten Apples Up On Top!”, a newer Dr. Seuss book (Theo LeSieg and Roy McKie),  “Countablock” by Christopher Franceschelli., Chika Chika, 1, 2, 3″ by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson, and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle.

Count Everything

Count your fingers and toes.
Count your child’s fingers and toes.
Count the number of eyes versus nose.
Count the number of flowers in a garden.
Count the number of Cheerios in the bowl.
Count the number of books on the shelves.
Count the number of steps up and down the stairs.
Count the number of rocks your child puts in a pail during a nature walk.

Stack and Place

Stack any type of block and count them as you place them. You can get nesting/stacking counting/ alphabet blocks and alternate learning counting with the alphabet, animal names, or animal sounds.  Place coins/random house objects in a piggy bank/jar/box and count them. Count the number of spoons as you set the table. Count the number of toy items while cleaning them up or placing them back into their bins.

Feed Things (real or fake)

Count the number of food pieces you feed to a favorite stuffed animal, puppet, or pet. Count the number of cups of water used to water a plant.  Count the number of snap peas in a pod.   Try using a “closure” technique by pausing before the last word in a series of words you have repeated several times to encourage your child to participate by saying the last number in the series, “e.g., say, “1,2, 3, 4, 5” several times and then say, “1, 2, 3,4….[pause]” so your child finishes with “5.”

Count While You Wait

Count to 10 (or 100 if you please) while washing hands, waiting in the elevator to see how long it takes to go up or down, and how much time is left for food to be ready for dinner time (“spaghetti will be ready in 10 more seconds”).

Use Apps to Supplement

While I would rather not use tech devices or talking toys to introduce or teach a new skill, certain exceptionally well-made apps can supplement learning of a skill that has already been taught by interacting and communicating with a person.  One great app for counting is the Endless Numbers App, which covers different ways of counting up to 100 with fun little monster animations and stories.

These are just some ideas of how to teach numbers, counting, and associated quantity concepts. How did you learn to count? Hmmm…