Magician’s Tricks: A Magic Game to Help Your Child Learn to Count

By Christina Mulcahy, Julia Ratchford, and Douglas Clements

Key Points:

  • Counting involves many different concepts and skills.
  • Magician’s Tricks can be personalized to help your child practice their counting skills and develop new ones.

About the Game

Early Counting Skills

Although counting seems simple, children need to learn many different things on the path to becoming counters.* To start counting objects, children need to be able to say one number word for each object they count without skipping or counting any object twice. Of course, they start by counting a small number (like 5) and as they get better at it, they can count higher and higher (like 10 and then 20 and beyond). As children progress to higher numbers, they also start to read written numbers. Later on, children are able to count backward. Then, they can start counting forward or backward from numbers other than 1.

Personalizing the Game for Your Child

You can support your child wherever they are on their path to developing counting skills by making small adjustments to the game. Below are some ideas to personalize Magician’s Tricks to help your child move to the next counting skill. Suggestions at the top of the list focus on earlier counting skills and suggestions at the bottom challenge children to develop harder counting skills.

  • If your child is skipping a card or counting a card twice: Have your child count the cards with you while they touch each card with their finger (or their magician’s wand!). If that doesn’t help, you can also point or hold your child’s hand to help them point.
  • If your child is counting small numbers: Put out a few more cards than what your child can count. If they can count up to 3, put out cards 1–5. Keep adding more cards as they can count higher.
  • If your child is counting to 10 or higher: In addition to using higher cards, like 1–20, use cards that just have numbers (no dots or symbols). Start encouraging your child to count backward. Pick a higher card towards the end of the row. After your child tells you what card you picked, ask them how they knew. If they show you how they counted forward to figure it out, point to the last card and ask if they can count back from 10.
  • If your child can count backward: Start by choosing the 9-card to encourage your child to count down from 10. Extend to 8 or 7.
  • If your child can count forward or backward from any number: Keep the cards you choose faceup so your child can count from those cards instead of from 1. Start the game normally but after they identify your card, leave it faceup with the number showing. Continue the game by picking a card right before or right after the faceup card you just chose and encourage them to start counting from the card that is faceup. For example, if the 3-card is face up and you point to the 4-card, encourage the child to start counting from the 3-card instead of the 1-card.

Build Language and Thinking Skills

  • After your child tells you the card you picked, ask: “How did you know that number?”
  • When your child answers by showing how they counted up to the correct card, ask: “Is there another way you can find that number?” (For example, you could encourage your child to count backward from the highest number like “10…9…8…7…6…5. 5!”)
  • If you are playing by leaving cards face-up, ask questions like, “What number comes before (the face-up number)?” “What number comes after (the face-up number)?” and “What number is two less than (the face-up number)?”

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Download Magician’s Tricks Game

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*For a full explanation of children’s development of counting skills, visit our website at

Christina Mulcahy is a postdoctoral fellow at the Marsico Institute of Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver. Julia Ratchford is a Counseling Psychology doctoral student and graduate research assistant at the University of Denver. Douglas Clements is the Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and professor at the University of Denver, and the executive director of the Marsico Institute of Early Learning and Literacy at the Morgridge College of Education. The authors are members of the DREME Network and part of the Math+ project.

A network of scholars in early math education, conducting research & developing materials to promote young children’s math learning.