Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Learning to Count Begins in Infancy


A team led by a researcher from the University of Queensland assessed how 18 month-old babies responded to videos of counting, and claim they demonstrate that humans begin to learn to count earlier than previously thought.

“I think the study is an interesting one but the title is a bit disconcerting. ‘Learning to count begins in infancy’ resonates with numerous studies tacitly suggesting to non-scientists and non-researchers (everyday parents if you like) that somehow we might tap into this new finding to advance or improve a child’s capacities and long-term educational success.

“The study does not concern or excite me per se, but the implications or how it might be interpreted do. I am not overly convinced that the cohort of children were actually counting as we might conceptualise the word, but may have been responding to stimuli in a particular pattern (i.e. voice intonation, hand movements, etc.).

“What would be interesting would be to use the technology that is currently available to watch their brains in action and see if they were engaging regions of the brain associated with different aspects of numerosity, maths etc. Similar research has been done within different contexts... and it would be noteworthy to see what happens in 18-month-old brains when doing the study presented.

“I suppose my overall concern is that we have a great deal of research available but too often in its journey from research journals to popular press it gets oversimplified, and I think the title of this study could be misconstrued and used to further inflate academic credentialling at an earlier age. If children do learn to count in infancy, so be it, and perhaps the message should be that active engagement between parents and children is helpful in building a child’s mind… That in itself is something extolled by many generations of parents and grandparents and a mantra of child development specialists and early childhood educators.”
– Mike Nagel, Associate Professor in Education, University of the Sunshine Coast

“The research was carefully constructed and clearly showed interest and discrimination in 18-month-old children. General realisation among adults that such young children think and relate to what they see is useful in changing traditional attitudes to this age group as primarily physical beings.

"Since young children only learn the language they hear in context, early counting depends on whether significant carers use this language. The counting sequence itself is similar to other songs and rhymes and picture books used with babies and toddlers, and by itself is useful as a memorisation of a sequence of words that have significance as a shared activity.

“At this stage the counting sequence is closely related to learning language and literacy. This research suggests that the beginnings of most numeracy concepts (shape, space, measurement) are involved in everyday activities, and that when adults make their thinking clear by talking their way through the activity it is easier for young children to understand the planning, sequence and mathematics involved...

“Counting does not necessarily lead to an understanding of quantity – it may just give children some recognition of how we organise quantity but it is equivalent to knowing Humpty Dumpty if adults do not demonstrate uses of number and relate the number sequence to concrete items.

“By 18 months most children would realise that objects and people have names but the number names recited in rhymes and counting relate to quantity. This can only be realised if adults use counting in many situations showing that each object is counted only once and demonstrating when to stop... Development of this knowledge is not automatic but needs experience and observation.

“In short, counting is a start but not enough on its own to understand the numbers. My advice to parents wanting to help their children to learn is to talk to your children about what you are doing. Talk yourself through the sequence of an activity, adding questions to show you are thinking things through, problem-solving as you go.”
– Anne Carrington, Lecturer in Numeracy, University of South Australia