According to a study reported in the journal Developmental Science, preschool children don’t truly “get” counting until they learn to count up to the number four and higher.
Apparently children who are exposed to "number words" from four through 10, along with the number words from one through three, acquire an understanding of the cardinal principle before children who have little exposure to these higher number words—and will do better in math classes.
“Seeing that there are three objects doesn’t have to involve counting,” says Elizabeth Gunderson, a graduate student working with Susan Levine, professor of psychology and comparative human development at the University of Chicago. “It’s only when children go beyond three that counting is necessary to determine how many objects there are.”
As part of the study, researchers visited and videotaped interactions between 44 youngsters and their parents. The 90-minute sessions were held over four-month intervals, when the children were between 14 to 30 months' old. When the children were nearly four years old, they were assessed on their understanding of the cardinal principle. The results were then compared to the records of their conversations about numbers with their parents.
Children whose parents talked about sets of four to 10 objects that the child could see were more likely to understand the cardinal principle. Using smaller numbers in conversations and referring to objects the children couldn’t see (such as “I’ll be there in two minutes.”) did not have the same results.
The study proves the vital role parents play in laying the groundwork for their children’s understanding of mathematics. Too many parents leave the math lessons for the teacher, when the basis of mathematical skill clearly starts at home.