We are always surrounded by numbers whether we realize it or not, and most of us don’t think twice when we talk using numbers, like gee, I wish I was 20 again so that those 2 lattes that I just drank will not immediately add 10 lbs on me…

Well, at least for me, I didn’t consciously think much about numbers until I started to teach my little one to count.

Researchers from Stanford University have formed a cognitive model of how we think about counting and numbers, and more importantly, determined how we can most effectively help our kids to learn to count.

The study, published in PLoS One, suggests one of the problems with learning numbers is that we never encounter just numbers; that is we hardly ever just see three, we usually see three of something, like bears or flowers. So when we say to a young child to ‘look at the three bears’, he or she must figure out which part of the phrase is the number and which is the object.

The researchers found that to help children focus on the number instead of the object, it’s better to phrase the sentence by saying the object first – instead of “three bears” say “look at the bears, there are three!”

This technique works better because learning is based on expectation, and trial and error, and some guessing. When the number comes before the object “three bears” the child is using “three” to expect “bears”, or think of “three” as a label or name for the bear and not a property. By flipping the sentence and putting the number after the object “look at the bears, there are three”, the child will start to think of “three” as a property.

So to teach the difference between two numbers, like two and three, your toddler will eventually learn that the object (bear) doesn’t offer any additional information when trying to tell the difference between ‘two’ and ‘three’. The words ‘two’ and ‘three’ are the important ones in the statement.

The researchers trained one group of children using the “look, there are three bears” method of teaching numbers, while trained another group using the “look at the bears, there are three!” method. The former showed little change in their number sense, while the latter showed a 30% improvement after just one session.

The training and results are similar to the group’s earlier research on teaching young children colour. The kids who were taught “the balloon is red” improved significantly over their original scores compared to the kids who were taught “the red balloon”.

My daughter is four now, and her counting is getting better. I think we taught her using lots and lots of repetition (we counted everything in sight). But no matter how you want to help your children to count, teaching basic math skills is very important. In another recent study, published in the Journal Developmental Psychology, researchers found that kids who has a good grasp of numbers at Grade 1 will do better in learning mathematics at Grade 5, and even maybe the rest of their lives.