Museum of Science, Boston

Math and Language Cognition

Language and math are important tools that allow humans to better understand the world around them, and communicate with one another. Some cognitive scientists are interested in learning more about how children develop language skills and conceptions about basic math principles, and how the development of math and language skills in early childhood might be interrelated.


Can practicing help children learn the meaning of number words?

Children can recite the numbers one through ten long before they understand exactly what those words mean or how counting works. This study seeks to understand when and how children learn what number words mean, and whether practicing can help very young children learn how to count.

In the first part of the study, children (ages 2-5) will be asked to count as high as they can. To measure children’s understanding of number words, we’ll then ask them to pick out a certain number of toys from a pile (e.g., “Can you make TWO ducks jump in the pond?”). We predict that children might be able to give one or two toys at a time before they are able to give a higher number of toys.

Next, we will practice counting with children using cards with pictures of different numbers of animals. We’ll focus on one particular number, counting up to that number each time (e.g., “This card has THREE animals. See: 1, 2, 3!”). After practicing, we’ll show children two cards at a time, and ask them to pick out the card with the number that they just practiced.

Finally, we’ll play the first counting game once more, asking children to make one, two, three, or more ducks jump in the pond. If practice helps children learn how counting works in general, they may find it easier to select the correct number of toys from the pile after the card game.

These results will help us understand how children learn to count and whether practice can improve this ability.

Learn about other research related to Math and Language Cognition.

This research is conducted by the Infant and Child Cognition Lab at Boston College

Try it at the Museum

Counting in the Body

Practice counting different parts of the body: How many eyes do you have? How many fingers and toes? Use the skeletons and models in the Discovery Center and the Human Body Connection to check out the parts that are inside of your body. How many bones do you have in your body? If you can’t count them all, can you estimate?

Try it at Home

Practicing numbers

Set up a pile of toys, blocks, or other objects. Ask your child to give you one. Then ask for two, then three, etc. Which numbers does your child already understand? Which do they not yet grasp? Try practicing counting with them, using objects from the pile. Connecting the number of objects with the word for each number is an important cognitive skill that all children develop over time. Try this activity again each week and watch how your child’s understanding of numbers develops!