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My daughter is 4 1/2 or so. She knows how to count to at least 10, possibly higher, and will do so unprompted.

However, we've recently tried to start playing some board and card games with her. In these situations, she starts having problems with her numbers. Even it's something simple, like counting the number of dots on the dice, or counting spaces to move on a board, she clams up. She starts throwing out numbers without even looking at what she's supposed be counting. I can't tell if she's guessing, nervous, or something else - but it's very frustrating to try and play these games with her as a result.

Ideally, I'd love to be able to solve the problem and get her counting in these situations, but I'd at least like to understand why she starts acting this way.

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Great first question. Clear and fits with community standards –  balanced mama Oct 30 '12 at 0:51
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4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

My guess is that she has memorized the number sequence, but hasn't actually made the correlation between the words and the actual amount of things. This a big leap. Have her practice counting as much as you can, but make it fun and incorporated into daily life as much as possible.

Like, when giving snacks "here's one slice of orange, now you have two orange slices." etc.

Walking up stairs "one step, two steps, three steps, etc"

Things like that where she's counting without feeling pressure. She'll start to make the connection that numbers represent the amount of stuff. To her they probably just sound like a rather meaningless sequence of words, even if she has figured out that you can represent the different numbers by drawing different shapes.

Another milestone for this age is comparisons like "which is bigger?", "who has more cheerios?", "which glass has less milk?" etc. This is GREAT practice!

Let me know if you need more.

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Thanks, that makes a ton of sense! –  Daniel Schaffer Oct 28 '12 at 15:05
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I also should have added: thank you for playing board games with your child. You are teaching her and helping her practice how to take turns, how to win/lose with grace, how to read, how to count, how to sit still, how to pay attention, how to plan/make decisions, how to have patience, how to see something through to the end, etc. I WISH more of my students' parents had played board games with them. Instead, I do. :) –  Christine Gordon Oct 28 '12 at 21:03
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I think Christine Gordon is right. The problem could be that she doesn't understand the relationship between numbers and their representation of quantity.

Or it could be that she's just excited about playing the game and just wants to get to the "fun" part of the game (moving her piece around the board or whatever). Unlike adults who have played games like this forever and can identify the number on a die just by looking at it, kids can't do that. Having to stop and count is way less fun than moving your piece around a board and discovering the outcome. My son is your daughter's age, and we go through the same thing--less now than we used to. He would start to count something without really paying any attention to what he was doing, and we would have to stop him and make him slow down and really count. It took lots of practice, but he's better now.

Or it could be a combination of both which I would bet is probably the case. Having her stop and slow down and helping her count while she's moving her piece, as well as reinforcing the concept in other areas will make a big difference and she'll probably have it figured out before you know it!

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There is a Dutch board game that's great for learning the concept of counting. Unfortunately, I don't know if there's an English version as well.

It's called "Hondje Waf", which translates to "Doggy Woof". The idea of the game is simple. A (mother) dog barks 1, 2 or 3 times and that replaces the die. The players have to count the number of barks and move their pieces (little dogs) accordingly. This makes the counting less abstract; they're listening to mother dog telling them how many steps to take.

Perhaps you can find a similar game, or if you really want one, order one from The Netherlands.

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One thing I've noticed with my 2.5 year old is that, while he can count-in-sequence to 20 only missing a teen or two, he can count items only up to 3 reliably. That's because there are two ways you count items; one is where you actually iterate through the items one by one until you hit the total, and one is simply instantly recognizing a known quantity. Your brain is able to see 3 jelly beans and realize it is 3, but seeing 8 jellybeans, unless they're in a nice pattern, you probably have to count to verify.

I'm not sure if that progresses over time (ie, if a kid has a smaller number of 'recognized' counts than an adult), but it's very obvious with my son: he accurately identifies 1, 2, or 3 items instantly, while 4 he can't identify instantly, and only sometimes is willing to count them.

In terms of difficulty counting, what can be very hard is counting without replacement, to borrow a survey research term. In other words, there are 4 dogs red/blue/green/yellow, so you count, red, then blue, then green, then red, ... no, wait, we counted that one already! For a child that's extremely difficult, both because they haven't trained their short term memories well enough to actually remember which ones they've counted, and because they haven't learned pathing and sorting tricks to help (ie, count clockwise, etc.)

If you're ever in a cell biology lab, try counting red blood cells on a slide. It's nearly impossible the first time, because they're randomly distributed about the slide - pathing tricks don't work very well, and sorting is pretty hard unless you have a grid over your slide to help you out. Younger kids are basically at that level of difficulty just counting 5 or 6 dots on a die. Teaching them sorting/pathing should help a lot, but ultimately, time and practice is mostly what will help.

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