Babies May Understand Counting Before They Fully Understand Numbers

By tempting an adorable pool of subjects with toys, a new study found that infants associate counting with quantities

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Dave Schmelick

Parents typically start teaching their children to count at an early age: one fish two fish, three little pigs, five little monkeys, and so on. Research has shown that kids don’t fully understand the meaning of number words until they’re around preschool age, but according to a new study published in Developmental Science, tots may recognize that counting indicates quantities at a much earlier stage in their development.

Babies can learn to say number words when they are relatively young, but “they are probably reciting, the way younger children can remember phrases such as, ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,’” Lisa Feigenson, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins and co-author of the study, tells Susan Svrluga of the Washington Post. By the time they are around four years old, children can understand that numbers represent discrete quantities.

But Jenny Wang, a former graduate student at John Hopkins and lead author of the research, wondered whether babies might nevertheless have some sense of what counting means. After all, as the study authors explain, children seem to be able to associate “red”—as an example— with some type of color before they can match the word “red” to actual redness. So the researchers designed a simple experiment to put little ones’ number skills to the test.

The adorable participant pool consisted of 16 babies between the ages of 17 and 20 months. (“Four additional infants were excluded for fussiness,” the researchers note.) The infants would watch as toys—like dogs or cars—were hidden inside a black box, which they could stick their little hands inside. Sometimes, the experimenter would count the toys out loud before dropping them into the box ("Look! One, two, three, four! Four dogs!"), but at other times, they would be more vague ("This, this, this, and this—these dogs.").

The babies were then encouraged to reach into the box and pull out up to two of the toys, sometimes with the experimenter’s help. But the experimenter held the remaining two toys back, to see if the infants would search for them. When the toys were not counted, the babies had a hard time remembering how many were inside the box, growing distracted after the first toys were pulled out. When the toys were counted, however, the infants seemed to understand that there were more to be found, continuing to search after two had been retrieved.

In a subsequent experiment, researchers let the babies retrieve three toys before their searching response was measured. Even with counting, the babies seemed less interested in exploring the box in this scenario, “suggesting that infants represented the counted arrays imprecisely,” the study authors write. Still, the results of the initial experiment indicate babies comprehend that numbers signal quantity, sometimes before they are even able to say, “one,” “two” and “three.” Indeed, when the researchers tried labelling the toys with names instead of numbers ( “Look! This is Sophie, Katie, Annie, Mary!”), the young study subjects did not look for additional toys after two were retrieved, reacting the same way they did when numbers were not used.

“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,” Wang says, adding that “these results were really surprising.”

Continuing to probe this novel idea, the team is studying whether early counting practice might lead to number skills in later life, and whether English-speaking babies might respond to counting in another language. But for now, Feigenson says, "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."