Counting Books

At first, numbering seems to require fingers and toes . . . 

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Counting is one of the earliest forms of abstract thinking that we teach pre-schoolers. To really get this technique, it seems, the young have to encounter it in many different circumstances until they are able to extract this technique from its contexts and understand they can use it anywhere—to count trees, say, or apples or babysitters. At first, of course, numbering seems to require fingers and toes. About this time, numbers are also encountered in nursery rhymes: “One, two, buckle my shoe,” “This old man, he played one,” “Five little Indians jumping on the bed,” as well as others. Taking this development a little bit further, books can be useful. 

I like Leo and Diane Dillon’s Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose because it’s a handy collection of nursery rhymes that involve counting (you will remember, for example, “One Potato, Two Potato” and “Baa, Baa Black Sheep”). I also like 1 2 3 4 U by David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim but for different reasons: because it is a board book (perhaps the most appropriate format for hands-on or teeth-on learning at this age) and because it’s zany (like the other books in their “Ugly” series).

Books about counting divide into two kinds: there are those where each page is (more or less) its own thing though often sequential, and there are those which endeavor to tell a continuing story as we move from one number to the next. In this latter category, my favorite is Maurice Sendak’s One Was Johnny which tells the growing complications faced by our young cowboy hero and how he gradually undoes a Cat-in-the-Hat-like mess that grows up around him.
These are my favorites, but I also asked others about theirs. My local children’s librarian took me to find Olivia Counts and Anno’s Counting Book; but because they were so popular, the place where they would have otherwise been on the shelf was vacant. My favorite first-grade teacher, my daughter, had one answer: “Hands down, Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Count—which is also available in a bilingual edition.”

It goes without saying, then, that it’s a long way from here to figuring out a restaurant tip as a percentage of the bill, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with—well, one or two or three or three-point-five steps. Expose the young to enough and varied examples of counting and, eventually, they will be able to abstract this skill and apply it where they like—for example, in delighted counting of cookies on a plate, or the more annoying enumeration of cars that pass by.

At this point, however, it should be admitted that math education can only go so far. The young can answer many questions of their own by making use of acquired measuring skills. But as near as can be determined, they will be unable to use these same skills to answer two questions: “Are we there yet?” and “How many days are there until Christmas?” 

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Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose
By Leo and Diane Dillon
Harcourt: $17.00 (hardcover)

1 2 3 4 U
By David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim
Random House: $6.99 (board book)

One Was Johnny: A Counting Book
By Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins: $5.95 (paperback)

Olivia Counts
By Ian Falconer
Simon and Schuster: $9.55 (board book)

Anno’s Counting Book
By Mitsumasa Anno
HarperCollins: $6.99 (paperback)

Mouse Count
By Ellen Stoll Walsh
Voyager Books: $5.95 (board book)

Mouse Count / Cuenta de ratón (bilingual edition)
By Ellen Stoll Walsh
HMH: $11.99 (lap-sized board book)

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A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2009).


28. April 2015 by Jerry Griswold
Categories: Genres | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment