The accomplishments of children are always significant, but many parents fail to realize that some of the most popular party tricks, such as counting to a certain number, are acts of memorization, not learning. Of course, she must learn to count to one hundred or learn to spell her name, but when asked to repeat the lesson, she’s relying on what is stored in her memory.
Is Memorization Bad?
Of course memorizing things isn’t bad. It’s a great way to learn your multiplication tables and the many facets of a foreign language. Being able to spell her name is a great skill to have and reciting the alphabet can be a building block for future learning; why else would so much emphasis be put on the cute songs children learn in school.
But when it comes to math, there is a misconception that counting is, well, counting. Learning to say the numbers in order is reciting a list from memory, much like a phone number. Learning to assign each of those numbers a picture is something else entirely.
Learning to Count
If you want your child to truly benefit from your math instruction, you should work with her to learn number concepts. This means she can see a number of beans and actually count them. If you put one hundred beans in front of a child who can “count” to 100, and ask him how many are on the plate, chances are he wouldn’t be able to tell you.
He might be able to count to ten using the beans, but in some cases even that is not true. What matters most is not how high your child has the numbers memorized, but if those numbers have meaning. It’s far better for your child to be able to count out ten coins than to say numbers up to two hundred. If he can do both, however, he’s off to a terrific start in mathematics as soon those memorized numbers can be applied to a handful of anything and gain new meaning.
Teaching Math Skills
Your child can start learning math skills before his second birthday. To properly teach the skills, you must simply make math and numbers part of your everyday life. Use numbers often in your speech and count things out for your child when possible. “Look John! You have ten fingers – one, two, three…” When you’re serving dinner, don’t dump his meat on his plate, help him count out how many bites there are. Count his shoes and count his crayons. Count his blocks and count his trucks.
When he seems to understand counting, start asking him to count for you. “John, how many crackers do I have on my plate?” Give him a mument to think about it. Then, help him count the crackers if he hasn’t answered you. Give him many opportunities on a regular basis and pretty soon he’ll surprise you by giving you the right answer.
It’s important to remember that toddlers are still learning basic verbal communication skills. This means your child might not be able to say the numbers outloud, but he can still count in his head and understand the concepts. Give him two choices when it comes to counting together. Say the number outloud and then use your fingers to show him what the number looks like. For example, when you say “one,” hold up your index finger at the same time. He might just start counting before he can string two words together in a sentence!
Finally, when your child has the basic concepts and can communicate numbers to you, start testing him and offering new challenges to expand his skills. You can certainly teach him what numbers look like as high up as one hundred so that your child really can count that high. You might also start working on basic addition and subtractions skills – not on paper, but with the same counting games.
An example of this might be, “John, how many noses are in the car right now?” John would then have to count all the noses in the car. You can do the same with toes, which tests his ability to add things he can’t see (unless everyone is barefoot.) Playing counting games with coins or blocks where you add some and take some away will also let him see that numbers change and give him a very big head start on the math skills he’ll be learning once he reaches his first two years of school.