Teaching preschoolers to actually count numbers—not just recite them—will better prepare them for success in math once they start school, new research from the University of Missouri suggests.
"Counting gives children stronger foundations when they start school," researcher Louis Manfras, an assistant professor in the university's department of human development and family studies, said in a news release. "The skills children have when they start kindergarten affect their trajectories through early elementary school; therefore, it's important that children start with as many skills as possible."
To determine the importance of learning to count, Manfra studied data from more than 3,000 low-income kids to find out whether their abilities to recite and count in preschool affected their math scores once they were in 1st grade.
Here's what he discovered: Kids who could recite and count to 20 in preschool had the highest math scores in 1st grade. The bad news? Less than 10 percent of the children in the study could count and recite to 20, according to the university.
"When children are just reciting, they're basically repeating what seems like a memorized sentence. When they're counting, they're performing a more cognitive activity in which they're associating a one-to-one correspondence with the object and the number to represent a quantity," Manfra said.
Manfra notes that learning to count would give kids a stronger math foundation when they start school, which can only benefit them as they progress through the grades. But developing that skill may be more difficult in low-income families because research has shown that these families tend to rely more on schools to teach some basic skills—while teachers may be expecting that kids will have learned them at home.
"This is a problem because it gives parents and teachers the idea that it's not their responsibility to educate the children, when it's everyone's responsibility," he said. "This is problematic because, when the children enter kindergarten and are at lower math levels, they don't have the foundational skills needed to set them on paths for future success."
Manfra reminded parents that easy math lessons can be found in many daily activities.
"When adults read books with children, they can count the ducks on the page," he suggested. "They might count the leaves that fall to the ground outside or the number of carrots at lunchtime."
Manfra's study is expected to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, according to the university.