By 24 months, children may start to understand the meaning and concept of “one” and “two,” known as “one-to-one correspondence,” even if they can “count” higher than that. Counting at this age is usually by rote, meaning they’ve memorized (mostly 🤓) the order the numbers go in without understanding what they mean. One-to-one correspondence means that a child makes the connection between the word “one” and the quantity:
Here are the stages of math learning at around two years:
- Children memorize numbers in order and can (kind of) recite them by heart. The way they count is similar to how they sing letters of the alphabet: they don’t understand that the number they’re naming relates to a quantity, in the same way that they don’t yet understand that the letter they’re naming relates to a sound.
- By 36 months, many children can understand the true meaning of numbers up to 5. This means they have one-to-one correspondence up to 5 (maybe even higher): they can point to 5 objects, one at a time, while counting. Don’t worry if your child can’t do that yet; this is very complex, and the development of these skills can vary from child to child.
Keep in mind that recitation (counting without a deeper understanding of the numbers) is still an extremely important foundational skill to practice and celebrate.
Here are some ideas to help support your two-year-old’s math skills:
Check their math understanding
Hold up one finger and ask “how many fingers am I holding up?” and see what they say. If they identify it as “one,” move on to two. Keep going, counting your fingers slowly and clearly, until your child is no longer able to count. Some children will eventually say “a lot!” or “I don’t know.” They may lose focus, or count by memory without one-to-one correspondence. Knowing where your child is with number sense can help you know what to practice.
Focus on counting
“Enumerating” is the act of counting something one at a time, and it’s one of the most foundational math concepts and abilities your child will learn. Look for everyday things to count, which can include:
- Cars passing by
- Fingers and toes
- Petals on a flower
- Legs on an animal
- Books on a shelf
- Bugs under a rock
- Toothbrushes in the bathroom
- Legs on an insect
If possible, try putting your hand over theirs to guide them in their counting. Encourage them to say “one” when touching the first object, “two” with the second, and so on.
To subitize is to identify the number of things in a set simply by quickly looking at them—not by counting them one by one. For example, when you glance at dots on a die, you likely know the amount without counting each dot.
Your child is in the very early stages of being able to do this—they likely won’t be able to subitize 3-5 objects until around age 5—but starting with one and two is a great way of reinforcing a crucial skill that will eventually become a major part of their math identity. Practice with blocks, stones, berries, and other small everyday objects: try setting two on the table, removing them, and asking how many there were. If they say “two,” move onto three.
Subitizing practice cards can be found on Amazon here.
Compare: more, less, or equal
Put a small number of berries, pretzels, or apple slices in each of two bowls (no more than 3 or 4) and give one bowl to your child. Count the items in your bowl (“1,2,3)” and then count the ones in your child’s bowl (“1,2,3”). Invite your child to eat one apple slice and then count the contents in each bowl again. You can say “oh look, now I have more apples than you do.” You can continue as you eat the apples talking about more, less, and the same. It might seem a little nerdy to be so deliberate with this lesson—and it is 🤓—but playing games like this whenever you have the opportunity can really make a difference in your child’s understanding.
Counting in everyday routines
A great way to involve math in everyday life is to give them a simple task like setting the table. Start small. For example, your 2-year-old can be in charge of putting out napkins. For a family of four, hand your child four napkins and ask them to put one next to each plate, counting with them as they go.
Next, as their understanding grows, have them count the members in your family to see how many napkins they’ll need to set the table.
Early addition and subtraction games
This activity gets your child involved with the early basics of addition and subtraction. Hold one small object, like a block, in your hand and ask how many there are. Then hide the block behind your back and say “how many blocks are behind my back?” Object permanence—the concept that things continue to exist when they’re out of sight—may be a newly-mastered skill for your child, and this activity is relatively complex.
If your child is into the activity, you can extend it:
- Hold one cube, and after they identify the amount, place it on the table. Ask again how many cubes there are—this is a very early example of the principle of conservation, which is the idea that things don’t change in quantity or amount when some aspect of the object is changed (in this case, the block’s position). Keep moving the block around to show that it continues to be “one block.”
- Hold two cubes, and after they identify the amount, put one behind your back and show them the remaining one; again ask “how many blocks are behind my back?” After they answer, reveal how many you hid.
- Repeat the same activity but vary it by hiding both cubes, or—and this is a tricky one—don’t hide any behind your back, and see what they say. The concept of “zero” is quite complex, and your child likely won’t have it down yet. This is a great opportunity to practice the idea of “zero,” “none,” and “nothing.”
- Hide other objects while your child watches. Slowly and carefully count blocks into a box with a closed lid (again starting with one, then two), and ask your child if they know how many blocks are in the box. With these activities, always reveal the blocks at the end.
Sing songs and read books about numbers
Songs like “one, two, buckle my shoe” and “the ants go marching” teach counting in a fun musical way. There are also many simple counting books like Making Muffins that reinforce numeracy while also helping support early literacy skills.
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