Infants Recognize Counting Long Before They Can Say, ‘1, 2, 3'

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 24, 2019 3 min read

It generally takes until preschool age for children to understand that a word like “four” represents a set, but new research from Johns Hopkins University suggests infants understand the concept of counting years earlier.

In a new study in the journal Developmental Science, psychology and brain science researchers Jinjing “Jenny” Wang and Lisa Feigenson showed 14- to 18-month-old children a series of common objects before hiding them. Then the researchers pulled out a few of the objects, and tracked whether and how long the children searched for additional hidden items.

In prior experiments, Feigenson had found toddlers could not remember and distinguish more than three hidden objects at a time; after the researcher pulled out a couple of objects from a larger group, the children no longer tried to find more even if several more were hidden. But in the current study, if the experimenter simply counted the objects before hiding them—pointing to each while listing the number words in order—the toddlers remembered larger numbers of items.

The experiments suggest early-childhood educators and caregivers should consider how even very young children are introduced to math in the world around them, Feigenson said.

“Children from very early on often know more about the world than we might assume. ... We come into the world disposed to think about objects and quantities,” she said. “Very early on babies are listening to what we’re saying to them. And even with something like the counting routine, babies may not get read a counting book every day, but when they hear it, but they’re already starting to make sense of it. Hearing people count with them is already changing the way that babies see the world.”

Changing Perspective

As Wang explained, something about the process of counting helps young children mentally alter how they look at a series of objects. Normally, a toddler tries to hold each individual item in her limited working memory. But watching an adult count the items seems to trigger the baby to view them as a set, and she switches to using the approximate number sense—one of the earliest math skills to develop, which allows someone to roughly compare groups of items and understand, for example, that eight items is more than five items. In the study, toddlers were able to distinguish four objects from six and continue to look for more hidden ones, but they did not differentiate three hidden objects from four, suggesting that they were relying more on estimates of the numbers rather that specifics.

“For other words like ‘dog’ or ‘sweet,’ you can directly see the dog, you can taste sweetness. But there’s no ‘fiveness’ in this world that you can directly perceive. It’s something that’s really abstract,” Wang said. “That’s why all the findings about babies’ approximate number sense were already really surprising, because that alone requires babies to be able to abstract numerical information from the world. And then using counting to understand number words requires them to take another step to associate this numerical dimension of the world that they abstracted, with the even more abstract number word that they’re hearing. So it’s an incredibly challenging task.”

Feigenson agreed. “When [Wang] actually came to me with the study idea, my reaction was that she was kind of crazy—there was no way that a 14-month-old had any understanding of what was going on when a parent said, ‘one, two, three, four balls,’ ” she said, “but I was wrong. These data suggest that by 14 months of age, babies don’t know what exactly ‘three’ means and ‘four’ means. But that counting routine that we do ... already has some meaning to babies. And in particular, what [Wang] showed is that counting directs a baby’s attention to the numerical dimension of the world.”

In fact, ongoing follow-up experiments suggest the counting routine may mean more to babies that the number words themselves; English-speaking babies show signs of recognizing counting even when the numbers are spoken in another language. The researchers are digging into whether cultural or language differences affect toddlers’ understanding of counting, and whether a toddler’s skill at switching from thinking of individual items to sets of items might predict later math skills in school.

You can see more about the study below:

Image and video source:Johns Hopkins University

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.