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1, 2, 7...

Like many little kids, Kerrie Ferrara's son Paul, 2, knew a lot of numbers and liked to say them out loud. But at first, he didn't get what order they were supposed to go in. Finally one day, it clicked. Paul held up his hand and counted his fingers one by one. "Now he counts everything and anything in his path," says the Shirley, NY, mom.

Kids pick up on numbers naturally, similarly to the way they learn language. They notice how many blocks they have, and hear numbers in nursery rhymes. Helping your child make sense of it all doesn't mean drilling him on the numbers 1 to 100, though. Parroting your words won't help him understand what the numbers mean, says Linda Bevilacqua, director of the early-childhood program at the Core Knowledge Foundation, a nonprofit education-reform organization in Charlottesville, VA. You can expose him to numbers, though, if you keep your counting activities simple, tactile, and fun:

  • Start Small. Stick with teaching him number concepts that correspond to his age. A 3-year-old can comprehend three ducks, but six chickens may be beyond him.
  • Count Together. When you're setting the table, place your hand over his and count aloud slowly as you place each fork down together.
  • Put it in reverse. Counting forward helps kids later on when they're learning to add; counting backward makes subtraction easier to grasp. Try counting along with the microwave timer from five down to zero.