How Does a Baby Learn to Count?

Three Dogs is more than Too Sheep

The observation that a young child can recite a list of numbers words before they understand that numbers words stands for specific values is interesting but it makes sense.

Parents and other children often ask a young child to repeat a string of number words – “One, Two, and Three”. Often this invitation to count is provided and used without an explicit pointing out of the relationship between the number word and the meaning of the words.

What is it about Numbers?

But the question is why it should take longer time for a young child to gain this understanding than learning the relationship between other words and their meaning. What is it about numbers that makes the relationship difficult to understand?

There are two main explanations to how children learn to master numbers.

  • It is possible that children believe that each number word corresponds to an abstract numerical amount.

If you teach a child the meaning of two in one situation, the child can use the number two in any other situation. It does not matter if it is two sheep or two apples.

  • But it is also possible that children use a number word in one context but not in another.

A child who has be taught to count two butterflies, may extend the use of the word to count other flying objects, for example, two birds, two dragonflies.

  • There is support for both ideas.
  • Children can use the number word two to any set of two individuals, but they also use numbers words in a restrictive way.


Most two-year-old children can give you one apple if you ask them for one apple. But if you ask them for two apples, you may get two apples, three apples, or five apples. The children are not consistent. You can call these children “One-Knowers”.

A little older children master the number two, and then the number three. These children can often count to “five” or “ten”. By their fourth birthday, most children can consistently use numbers to refer to the correct number of objects.

Two-Knowers and Three-Knowers

In a recent study, young children were put into different groups depending upon how many numbers words they showed that they understood. 

The children were trained, and their generalization skills were examined. The children, approximately between 2.5 and 4 years old,  were either two-knowers or three-knowers.

The children were trained to extend on to the next word-to-quantity mapping by using pictures of animals. The children then had to show their understanding by using the trained word to pictures of different animals.

Tricky Dogs

The study found that children who showed understand of number words up to the number three could learn to transfer the training on four. The children could generalise their training to new object and nouns.

The children, in the other group who mastered one or two number words-meaning, transferred their training relatively within count nouns, but they did not label different noun context.  

These children did not generalise to new kind of animals. An interesting thing was that the children who was trained on a single kind of animal, such as three dogs, learnt to use the number three to apply to dogs of various sizes and breeds. But for some reason they did not apply this to sheep!

Like always when conducting research with young children. You end up with more questions.

  • Try to see what your child can do. 
  • Can you point out and explain the vital features involved in counting. 
  • Does it make any difference when you do?   
  • Examine how your child use numbers and in what situations they generalise. 

The study was conducted by Huang, Yi Ting, Elizabeth Spelke, and Jesse Snedeker. 2010. “When is four far more than three? Children’s generalization of newly-acquired number words”. Psychological Science 21(4): 600-606.n

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