Easy as 1-2-3: Babies understand concept of counting years earlier than thought

BALTIMORE — It’s no secret that infants are more aware of their surroundings than a parent might realize. Though they may not be able to speak or sound out many words, they’re taking in and figuring out much about the world in front of them, including basic math.

Of course, the general consensus among pediatricians and scientists alike for decades has been that young children don’t have a full understanding of counting and numbered-phrases until they are about four years old. Interestingly, a new study conducted at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has discovered that while young infants may not be able to actually utter words like “one” or “three,” that doesn’t mean they don’t have any idea what is being said. According to researchers, infants as young as 14-18 months old are indeed aware that counting indicates quantity.

“Although they are years away from understanding the exact meanings of number words, babies are already in the business of recognizing that counting is about number,” cognitive scientist and study author Lisa Feigenson says in a release. “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.”

Feigenson goes on to say that she was always surprised by the accepted notion that most children don’t understand counting until the age of four, especially considering just how much infants are exposed numbers in nursery rhymes and other activities.

“We buy counting books for babies and we count aloud with toddlers,” Feigenson elaborates. “All of that raises the question: Are kids really clueless about what counting means until they’re in the preschool years?”

So, the research team opted to perform an experiment with a group of 14-18 month old infants. Each baby watched as little toy cars or dogs were placed inside a box that they couldn’t see inside of but could reach into. For some babies, the researchers counted each toy verbally as they placed them inside the box, uttering “Look! One, two, three, four! Four dogs!” While other infants only heard phrases like “This, this, this, and this—these dogs.”

The infants who didn’t hear any counting had a much harder time keeping track of how many toys were placed in the box. These babies largely became distracted and disinterested after the researchers pulled just one toy out of the box, indicating that they were unaware that the box held additional toys. However, the babies that did hear counting expected more than one toy to be pulled from the box. These babies weren’t able to keep track of the exact number of toys (four), but they seemed to remember the approximate number of toys.

“When we counted the toys for the babies before we hid them, the babies were much better at remembering how many toys there were,” comments first author Jenny Wang. “As a researcher these results were really surprising. And 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.”

Researchers are already conducting follow-up experiments to determine if exposing infants to counting practices early on leads to improved numerical skills later in life, as well as if counting uttered in foreign languages still registers among babies born to English-speaking parents.

The study is published in the scientific journal Developmental Science.

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