number blocks

Talk Numbers With Your Toddler

number blocks
Photo: Derrick Schneider


How much do you talk about numbers around your toddler? If you’re like me a few months ago, you probably don’t give it much thought. Even though I’d learned to narrate my entire life to our little bundle of craziness, and even though I love math, I didn’t make an explicit effort to talk about numbers in front of her.

But this study, “What Counts in the Development of Young Children’s Number Knowledge?” made me pay attention. In short, say the authors, toddlers who hear more number talk at home have a higher understanding of cardinal numbers as they enter school, which other studies have shown correlates to later mathematical ability.

Of course, you could probably make a similar study about any subject. Talk about musical theory a lot, and your toddler will grow up to wield the baton in music class. Talk about Doctor Who a lot, and they’ll enter school debating whether Amy Pond or Clara Oswald is the better companion. (In our house, the answer is always River Song, regardless of whether she’s being included in the vote.)

So, talking about topics with toddlers gives them a leg up on them. Got it. But this one goes deeper. According to this study, “Gender Biases in Early Number Exposure to Preschool-Aged Children,” parents tend to use that all-important number talk more with their sons. Thus, daughters may be entering school with a numerical disadvantage from the get-go. And it doesn’t get better there, as this recent New York Times article reports.

Yes, I know: yet more things you’re supposed to do to ensure your toddler doesn’t fall behind, lose self-esteem, turn into a brain-eating zombie, or whatever else the alarmists are on about this week. But numbers are easy to do. Every book and every walk has things you can count. Cooking has ratios. Bath time has toes and fingers to count as well as subgroups of bath toys.

Another tool in my numeric narration belt is the Bedtime Math franchise, which I recommend. Each day, I get an email with an interesting anecdote from around the web and math-themed questions for “wee ones” (roughly my daughter’s age), “little kids,” and “big kids.” There’s even an occasional “sky’s the limit” question that I enjoy tackling. I don’t yet read the questions at bedtime, but the emails give me ideas for the kinds of things I can weave into our conversation: counting similar things, counting different things, counting backwards, and more.

When she’s older, I hope to play number-boosting board games with her. And at some point, I’m hoping we can use Randall Munroe’s What If? as bedtime reading. As long as the apocalyptic scenarios he outlines don’t give her nightmares.

So is all this work panning out? With a sample size of one and not-inconsiderable bias, it’s hard to tell. But I at least tell myself that it’s helping. On the other hand, she’s a toddler, and her brain is exploding with knowledge regardless of what I do, so who knows. If nothing else, numbers will likely be familiar territory early on, and that can’t be bad, right?

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