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Teaching mathematics
Teaching mathematics

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1.1 Learning to count and counting effectively

Young children learn about quantity as they interact with their environment. They recognise that it is possible to have one of something, or to have more of something. They can judge whether there is more of one item, say, sweets, than there is of another item, say, biscuits, by comparison (for example, by using one-to-one correspondence).

Small children also learn to count, usually helped by the adults and older children in their life. For example, it is common to count the number of stairs you are climbing, or the number of biscuits you have. Counting seems to be an easy skill to learn but it is actually more complex than many people think.

Activity 1 How do children learn to count?

Timing: Allow 5 minutes

Take a minute to think about what counting entails and the skills needed to be able to count.


Did you think of the following?

  • Children need to learn the names for the numbers and the order in which they come. In the English language this is one, two, three, four, etc.
  • When counting objects, children learn to refer to each object (perhaps by pointing) and to say the next number in the sequence. This is called one–to–one correspondence.
  • The last number in the counting sequence gives the number of objects being counted (one, two, three, four, so there are four objects). This is known as cardinality. The cardinal number is the last number in the counting sequence and this gives you the quantity of the objects. Clearly, you need to start with the number 1 if you are to do this accurately.
  • Finally, children learn that the order in which the objects are counted does not matter. They still get the same final number. This is the conservation principle.