Children can understand counting “years earlier than previously believed” © Getty Images

Children can understand counting “years earlier than previously believed”

Researchers say toddlers could understand counting even before they can say the words.

Children as young as 14 months have a sense of counting, even if they are years away from being able to count out loud, scientists have said.

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Researchers found that toddlers who hear objects being counted are able to associate the number words with the corresponding quantities, even though they will not understand the full meaning of these words until they are about 4 years old.

The team described their findings, published in the journal Developmental Science, as “surprising” and said their results show that children recognise counting “years earlier than previously believed”.

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Senior study author Lisa Feigenson, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, said: “Research like ours shows that babies actually have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the world – they’re already trying to make sense of what adults around them are saying, and that includes this domain of counting and numbers.”

Previous research has shown that the process of counting begins at around 2 ½ years old, when youngsters begin to recite the count list but do not yet know what the count words mean. At about the age of 4, children begin to understand the cardinal principle – which is a connection between numbers as words and a quantity of items.

How important are developmental milestones really?

Taking a detailed developmental history of these kinds of milestones can be very useful. If there is a pattern of several milestones being significantly delayed, alongside current difficulties in social relationships or other areas, it might lead us to wonder whether a child has a developmental disorder, and needs extra input to reach his or her full potential.

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The researchers recruited 80 toddlers, aged between 13 and 20 months, as part of the experimental study. The team performed 5 tests, all of which involved hiding toys – either dogs or cars – inside an opaque box.

In some instances, the researchers counted each toy aloud before putting them into boxes, while in other scenarios they simply dropped the toys into the box one by one in full view of the toddlers.

The children tended to lose interest when the toys were not counted before being hidden. But when the researchers counted the toys, the toddlers were better at remembering the number of toys and continued to look in the box to try to find them all.

Jenny Wang, a former graduate student at Johns Hopkins and one of the study authors, said: “These results were actually really surprising because all the prior research of the past decade has shown how difficult it is for children to master the meaning of count words.”

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She added: “Our results are the first to show that very young infants have a sense that, when other people are counting, it is tied to the rough dimension of quantity in the world.”