In the real world we usually don’t count by ones, beginning with one. It takes too long. We find ways of getting to a number much faster. We may begin at a higher number we know and count on or count back. For example, you have groups of 10 stacks of plates, and you need 12, so you’ll just take a stack and add 11, 12 and now you have 12 plates. Or you take 3 plates from the stack and count down–10, 9, 8–to keep track of how many plates are left.
These faster ways of counting work because of a rule for rational counting, the stable order rule. This rule states that the order of numbers is a fixed pattern, with each number representing a quantity that is always one more than the number that precedes it and one less than the number that comes after it. So put in another way, 4 is one more than 3 and 3 is one less than 4.
Children need experiences and practice counting in different, flexible ways while learning these rules of counting. And what better way to do that than through the books they love to hear over and over.
Counting with fingerplays such as the classic Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed provides kids the opportunity to see, hear, and act out counting in different ways. From keeping track of the monkeys on the bed with fingers to the joy of pretending to jump on the bed and fall off, children can model the one-less pattern of counting down. And, you can extend their learning by asking all kinds of questions that touch on the rules of counting.
What if 2 more monkeys came over to play with the 5 little monkeys? Can we count down if they also started jumping on the bed?
What if 2 monkeys fell off at once?
Editor’s Note: This particular song may have a racist history, and it is racist to compare any group of humans with monkeys. However, given the ubiquity of this song and book in early childhood classrooms, we feel that it’s worth thinking about how to mathematize the inherent counting-down pattern. For other fingerplay ideas, please see our list of favorite nature-inspired fingerplays and songs below.
A favorite book, The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins, also provides an engaging context for counting. In this book, Ma’s cookies become irresistible to her family and friends. As guests come to partake, the cookies continually disappear into hungry bellies. It’s a relatable and well-told story for young children, and it introduces some ideas that can be explored along the way. Just change it to pizza!
Your family is sharing pizza. Into how many pieces should it be cut?
Decide on 2 different pizzas to share. How many would want a slice of one? How many would want a slice of the other? How many want a slice of both? How many pieces would that come to?
Grandma brings over enough pizza so everyone in your family can have two slices. How many slices is that?
With favorite fingerplays and books, along with some playful questions, children have many opportunities to become flexible with the rules of counting that exist in everyday life.
Math at Your Fingertips: Songs and Fingerplays for Preschoolers
Get more ideas for using fingerplays to bring out the math with children and their play.