Changing knowledge about young children’s numeracy learning

Astoundingly, there is recent evidence that babies come into the world with ‘a primitive number sense’! Scientists in the USA (Nuwer, 2013; Duke Today, 2013) have found that babies as young as six months of age notice the difference between screens containing 20 dots and those showing 10 dots. Babies are more intrigued by the larger groups of dots and look for longer at the changing screen. Researchers believe that this intuitive sense may be connected to humans’ unique ability to use numerals to match the number of objects—10 oranges and 5 strawberries is a collection of 15 pieces of fruit. This early ‘number sense’ is reflected in later success in mathematics and learning in general.


Of course, early life experiences don’t only impact on future academic learning. The quality of the relationships and learning environments that babies, toddlers and preschoolers experience is critically important for their long-term physical, emotional and social wellbeing and mental health, and as well as for their cognitive growth.

As the MCEECDYA project (p. 5) explains, the key message for adults working with young children is to:

… include children in everyday, nurturing life, where they are loved, talked with, played with and are well nourished; where they can socialise and explore …

What does this mean for how we interact with babies?

The fact that young children are amazing learners does not mean that we should put pressure on them to deal with information beyond their interest and maturity. It means that the ideas and language of maths and numeracy should be explored playfully, through everyday experiences with sensitive parents and educators, in a natural and enjoyable way.

Babies are learning about numeracy when they move their arms and legs to explore the space around them, follow people’s actions with their eyes and begin to reach out to touch mum, dad, nana, their educator or their favourite toys. The adults say helpful things such as: ‘two yellow ducks in the bath today’, ‘lots of toys on the floor’, ‘that’s right reach up to mummy’ and ‘look up at the big window’.

Adults encourage babies’ disposition to engage with ideas about space and number when they:

  • delight in the child’s discoveries—‘You can make the red ball roll a long way; aren’t you clever?’
  • talk about objects and space and position—‘Big Teddy’s on the top shelf, way up there; I’ll get him down for you.’
  • play games where things ‘appear’ and ‘disappear’ such as peek-a-boo—‘Now you can see my ring, now you can’t; here it is again.’
  • use number names when talking and playing with babies—‘One, two, three, four five … five press studs on your grow suit … let’s count those toes too.’
  • involve them with space and size problems—Take the tops off jars of different sizes and play with fitting the right lid to each, modelling and then giving the child a go, supporting as necessary.
  • say rhymes and sing songs—‘Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub … Lottie’s in the tub too, but there’s only one Lottie!’

These fun activities that happen during everyday routines, lead to important concepts such as:

  • objects exist as separate entities from me and my body
  • objects have properties; they take up space and have different shapes
  • humans can affect what some objects do, in space and over time
  • using numbers helps me describe and organise my world.

When they begin crawling, babies’ worlds become much bigger and more exciting. They can move around, finding out if their body will fit in a space, how far it seems to crawl to the sleep area and how long it takes to reach a toy: they are learning numeracy about space, size, distance and time.

We used to think that the only things babies needed were food, a dry nappy and a warm, safe place to sleep. Now we know that their brains need ‘food’ too and that the early years of life are a significant time for learning.

Jenni Connor

Jenni Connor undertakes research and writing into learning, curriculum and educational issues generally. Jenni has a number of publications with ECA, including Your Child’s First Year at School. Jenni has been an early childhood teacher, primary principal, curriculum manager and writer. She is now a freelance writer and undertakes research, writing, editing and lecturing in early childhood education, literacy, learning and curriculum.

One thought on “Changing knowledge about young children’s numeracy learning”

    Susy says:

    Call me wind because I am ablulotesy blown away.

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