Loughborough University
Wege_how-we-think-about-numbers.pdf (2.99 MB)

How we think about numbers: early counting and mathematical abstraction

Download (2.99 MB)
posted on 2023-11-28, 15:08 authored by Theresa Wege

As children learn to count, they make one of their first mathematical abstractions. They initially learn how numbers in the count sequence correspond to quantities of physical things if the rules of counting are followed (i.e., if you say the numbers in order “one two three four …” as you tag each thing with a number). Around the age of four-years-old, children discover that these rules also define numbers in relation to each other, such that numbers contain meaning in themselves and without reference to the physical world (e.g., “five” is “one” more than “four”). It is through learning to count, that children discover the natural numbers as mathematical symbols defined by abstract rules.

In this dissertation, I explored the developmental trajectory and the cognitive mechanisms of how we gain an understanding of the natural numbers as children. I present new methodological, empirical, and theoretical insights on how and when in the process of learning to count, children discover that numbers represent cardinalities, that numbers can be defined in relation to each other by the successor function and that numbers refer to units. Lastly, I explore this mathematical abstraction as the foundation of how we think about numbers as adults.

My work critically tested prominent theories on how learning to count gives meaning to numbers through analogical mapping and conceptual bootstrapping. Findings across five empirical studies suggest that the process is more gradual and continuous than previous theories have proposed. Children begin to understand numbers as cardinalities defined in relation to other numbers by the successor function before they fully grasp the rules of counting. With learning the rules of counting this understanding continuously expands and matures. I further suggest that children may only fully understand numbers as abstract mathematical symbols once they understand how counting and numbers refer to the abstract notion of units rather than to physical things.

The central finding of this dissertation is that learning to count does not change children’s understanding of numbers altogether and all at once. Nonetheless, when learning to count, children accomplish a fascinating mathematical abstraction, which builds the foundation for lifelong mathematical learning.



  • Science


  • Mathematics Education Centre


Loughborough University

Rights holder

© Theresa Elise Wege

Publication date



A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.


  • en


Matthew Inglis ; Camilla Gilmore

Qualification name

  • PhD

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

This submission includes a signed certificate in addition to the thesis file(s)

  • I have submitted a signed certificate

Usage metrics

    Mathematics Education Centre Theses


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager