Counting Numbers: Milestones between 18-36 months

Counting Numbers (Enumeration) Milestones (18-36 Months)

Did you know that most children in the age group of 18-24 Months find it impossible to count 4 objects and more accurately? Yes, when it comes to counting numbers (enumeration), children can be quite slow to start. Many parents start teaching their kids numbers by counting objects in their environment. If you have a young child who is below 3 years and you have been trying to teach it counting in your home, please read this blog.

Early childhood mathematics comprises various sub-subjects. There is more to early childhood mathematics than counting (enumeration). Spatial sense (geometry), measurement, recognizing patterns, logical reasoning and symbolic logic (algebra) all begin to take root in early childhood itself. Having said that, enumeration and operations (e.g., addition, multiplication etc.) are considered by many experts as the most important of all the above-mentioned sub-subjects.[2] This blog focuses only on enumeration milestones and NOT on other sub-subjects. Several studies have indicated that early exposure to the language of mathematics and its symbol system, in home and pre-school / kindergarten, is a significant indicator of later life mathematical competence.[1] The same study also indicated that early mathematical concepts might be learnt by the child from as early as 14 months onwards.

18-24 Months
Understanding Numbers (18 – 24 Months)
  • Most children can remember and say the number words up to three, but some of them may not understand their meaning.
  • Most children understand the meaning of one and two as they near 24 months.[3] Anything above 2 is viewed by them as many.
  • Few children can understand the meaning of one, two and three as they near 24 months.[4] Anything above 3 is viewed by them as many.
  • A very small portion of children below 2 years can truly understand the meaning of four or more.

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24-36 Months
Understanding Numbers (24 – 36 Months)
  • By the end of the third year (3 years), most children would be comfortable in counting up to 5 objects.
  • Few can count accurately up to 10 objects.
  • Very few can count accurately up to 20 objects.[5]

How do kids learn counting numbers and why it is challenging?

Enumeration is tightly coupled with the concept of cardinality and quantity. Cardinal numbers are used to represent the number of objects in a set or a collection. 123 numbers can be understood as labels that represent cardinality of that collection. To understand how a child learns to count, it is important to put ourselves in the shoes of a child and view the world. If we break down the concept of counting, the following things need to happen for the child to understand counting:

  1. The child needs to develop the capability to generalize and extend. For examples, we point to apples in the basket and say, “two apples” and then point to two dolls and say, “two dolls”. The child needs to understand that quantity (two in the above example) as a concept is general in nature and that it can be applied to various contexts, including the counting of apples and dolls.
  2. Next, the child needs to also develop a symbolic understanding that the sound of the word two is used to represent the quantity two in the language that we use.
  3. If we are trying to teach the child the number 2 by writing it down (as a numeral) or by holding up two fingers, we are adding one more layer of complexity. The child must now understand that the numeral 2 or two fingers of your hand, is same as the sound of word two and that it represents a quantity in many contexts including apples and dolls and many more things around the house!
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How a child begins to map number words and numeral symbols onto its sense of magnitude (or quantity or cardinality) is still not fully understood and is an area of active research. [6]

Tips & Activity Ideas on How to Count Numbers

Parents should note that children require significant amounts of time to develop foundational counting skills. Your child’s counting skills might seem to be progressing very slowly and may occasionally feel like they are regressing! But parents should remember that this is completely normal. As always consistency and structure are the key elements that determine effective learning outcomes. Also remember to use the above guidelines for what each age group children can do, to avoid pushing your child too hard. For example, there is no use trying to get your child to count 5 objects if he/she is below 2 years old.

18 – 24 Months: Tips & Activity Ideas on How to Count Numbers
Finger counting helps children visually conceptualize numbers and their quantity!
  1. Focus on the concept of ‘Few’ and ‘Many. As a parent, you can reinforce this easily in your day-to-day conversations with your baby. E.g., “there are very few candies left”, “there are so many toys in that shop”.
  2. Teach the child to distinguish between one and two. One way to do this would be to give specific instructions to the child, “give me 2 crayons” or “pick up one ball”. Most children in this age group will follow simple instructions. Try and incorporate these two numbers as naturally into your conversations with (and around) the child.
  3. Counting parts of the child’s own body is also a good idea. For example, “two eyes”, “one nose”, “two lips” etc. The child’s own body plays an important role in its worldview at this stage.
  4. Research has shown that children understand quantity, first only in relation to objects that are physically present. Avoid attempting to teach counting using objects that are not present physically and need to be mentally visualised (imaginary).
  5. When teaching children in this age group, it might be a good idea to keep repeating the same examples, like the ones mentioned in point 2 or 3. It takes children a fair amount of time to generalize and extend the concept of cardinality to all collections of objects.
  6. Number Words (sounds) are more important than the (written) numerals, at this stage. Symbolic learning of children is quite underdeveloped at this stage. Rhymes and songs are good ways to make your child remember the words easily. Research has shown a strong connection with the introduction of number words and enumeration capabilities of a child[7].
  7. If you must introduce symbols of counting, we recommend that you use fingers of your hand rather than numerals.
24 – 36 Months: Tips & Activity Ideas on How to Count Numbers
Use daily objects to teach number counting to your kids!
  1. Teach your children the concept of ‘More’ and ‘Less’. Your child will gradually learn this concept if you keep repeating it in various contexts. E.g., “I have more chappatis on my plate than you.”
  2. Use counting motions and actions wherever possible. For example, If you and your child are climbing a staircase, count the steps together.
  3. As a parent, you have pretty much an endless number of opportunities for counting exercises with your child. Look around your house, you can see dozens of things that can be counted. From toys to books to even eggs in the fridge, you can do counting activities with your child with virtually anything.
  4. You can pose simple questions to your child such as, “How many bananas are there in the fruit basket?” Encourage your child to show numbers using the fingers of his/her hand while replying to your questions. You can also encourage your child to ask for a specific number of things. E.g., “I want two gulab jamuns”.
  5. Children at this age slowly begin to understand that counting can be applicable even for non-physical entities. As your child is nearing 3 years of age, he/she might be able to understand statements such as, “this is the third time you are crying since morning”. You may slowly try using such statements in the second half of the year.
  6. Continue to focus on teaching number words using rhymes, songs etc. Number words (sounds) still are primary symbols that represent counting for the child. Check out the list of best Number rhymes from this Number Rhymes blog.
Use Number Rhymes to teach counting
  1. In the later half of the year, you may slightly increase the focus on numerals (written). The child now has the capability to absorb numerals for the first few numbers. Remind your child about a numeral wherever you see them, like on a TV remote or laptop keyboard or on a signboard on the road etc.
  2. The child can now understand the concept of “first” and “last”. Try and make your child pick the first and last in the sequence of objects or people.
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A note to parents:

The problem in charting out any of the early mathematics milestones of children, is that different children develop skills at varying paces and that is perfectly normal. It is therefore important for parents to avoid a one-size-fits-all kind of approach to early math education.

Hope you found this blog on enumeration (counting numbers) milestones for children between 18-36 months useful.

Mayank Mishra contributed towards the research for the article!
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Comment below

1 thought on “Counting Numbers: Milestones between 18-36 months”

  1. Dear Ira,thanks for your fruitful article. I have a question related to this article. In a child psychology book on infants perception of numbers and counting I came across a technical term “analog magnitude representation”. I was wondering what this term could mean as I searched a lot but couldn’t find the answer. I’d really appreciate it if you could help me.

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