Babies can understand counting years before they can say ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘three’, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that toddlers who are years away from being able to recite numbers, already have a sense of what counting means.
The findings, published in the journal Developmental Science, reveal that very early on, babies who hear counting realise it's about quantity.
“Although they are years away from understanding the exact meanings of number words, babies are already in the business of recognising that counting is about numbers,” explains senior study author Professor Lisa Feigenson, a cognitive scientist who specialises in the development of numeric ability in children.
“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.”
Professor Feigenson, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, said most children don't understand the full meaning of number words until they're about four years old.
But she said that's surprising, considering how much counting young children are exposed to.
“We buy counting books for babies and we count aloud with toddlers,” she explains.
“All of that raises the question: are kids really clueless about what counting means until they're in the preschool years?”
To find how how much babies really understand about the concept of counting, Professor Feigenson and study first author Dr Jenny Wang worked with 14 and 18-month-olds.
The toddlers watched as toys, little dogs or cars, were hidden in a box that they couldn't see inside of, but could reach into.
Sometimes the researchers counted each toy aloud as they dropped them into the box, saying, “Look! One, two, three, four - four dogs!”
Other times the researchers simply dropped each toy into the box, saying, “This, this, this and this - these dogs.”
The results suggested that without counting, the babies had a hard time remembering that the box held four things.
They tended to become distracted after the researchers pulled just one out, as if there was nothing else to see.
But when the toys were counted, the babies clearly expected more than one to be pulled from the box.
They didn't remember the exact, but they did remember the approximate number.
Commenting on the study results Dr Wang said: “When we counted the toys for the babies before we hid them, the babies were much better at remembering how many toys there were.”
Dr Wang went on to say how surprising the findings were.
“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.”
The researchers are now conducting several follow-up studies, trying to determine if early counting practice leads to later number skills, and if English-speaking babies react to counting in another language.
Additional reporting SWNS.