Counting Box

It sounds like a simple concept, but it’s one that gets toddlers and kids really thinking about math and numbers without just counting cows or apples. The full app description and story about what inspired it is below, but it was inspired by (and recently featured on) the popular website

Counting Box app for Kids

Counting Box teaches kids how numbers increase and decrease.

Counting Box

Does your child…
…show a strong interest in numbers?
…love to count higher and higher?
…enjoy simple math?
…like playing with calculators?

The iPhone Counting Box

A Counting Box is a simple device which increments or decrements (adds or subtracts) numbers on a large screen each time you press a button. Children and adults who love numbers or show an interest in simple addition and subtraction will enjoy watching the numbers grow or decrease in size with each press of the buttons. Great for parents, teachers or anyone who works with toddlers or children aged 2 to 5 who have a curiosity about numbers and counting.

How It Works

The middle square box shows your increment/decrement value (0-100) and can be adjusted with the up or down triangle buttons.

The large round buttons will subtract or add the increment/decrement value to the total value shown with large bright bold numbers. If you hold the buttons down they will begin to quickly add or subtract automatically.

You can return to 0 by pressing the 0 button or you can change the settings by pressing the “gear” button and you can view the instructions with the “i” button.


  • Simple, large buttons for easy operation by children and even toddlers
  • Ability to add until you reach 1,000,000 or subtract until you reach -1,000,000
  • Change increment/decrement values from 0 to 100
  • Press and hold buttons down to quickly add or subtract without repeated pressing
  • The are 4 different number colors, 4 different screen colors and 4 different box colors you can choose from, giving you 64 different display options
  • Negative numbers can be turned off, so that 0 is the minimum number
  • Sounds can be turned on or off
  • Realistic steampunk-themed graphics make you feel as though you’re interacting with a real world device


Negative Numbers: If turned on you can “count” down to -1,000,000. If negative numbers are not allowed you will only be able to count down to 0.

Sounds: You can enable or disable button clicks.

Increment Max 10: You can limit the incremental/decremental value to 10. Otherwise the maximum is 100.

I’m a father of two young children who love counting and numbers! The inspiration for the Counting Box app came from MAKE magazine and BoingBoing article which featured an electronics project made by a father for his 4-year-old son. My own children also love numbers and enjoy counting and being “quizzed” with simple addition and subtraction math problems, but I didn’t really have the knowledge, skill, time or money to produce a real electronic counting box. My kids would probably be in college by the time I finished 🙂 Instead, I decided to create a simple and affordable app which could be used by parents, math teachers, educators or anyone who wants their own counting box (and has an appropriate device to play it on).

The Story Behind the Counting Box

Last summer I read about a Kid’s Counting Box on BoingBoing and Make Magazine at about the same time I was teaching myself how to create iPhone apps. I’d bought myself a Mac for Father’s Day a few months before and I had a bunch of ideas for little apps and was trying to decide which to start when I read about the electronic counting box. The original entry came from Haha Bird.

There was something completely captivating about a beautifully crafted wooden box that uses a bright electronic display for such a simple and pure purpose as adding or subtracting one number to another. That being said, I think I would have ignored the Counting Box article if not for the impressive looking craftsmanship. It would never have caught my attention if it was just an LED display in a plastic project box, but the wood surface with the rounded joints just captured my imagination.

I was one of those kids that loved to press the equal sign on the calculator over and over, watching the total slowly grow larger. My own 4-year-old son is the same way. As much as I loved the idea of making a Counting Box of my own I knew that my electronic and woodshop skills really weren’t up to par for such an ambitious project.

Original real-life inspiration for the Counting Box app.

I showed the box to my son and he said it looked “cool” and that put the gears in motion. I pieced together a simple little app in about 10 minutes that would add 1 or subtract 1 from a total and handed the iPhone to my son. He immediately grasped the concept and began hitting the green button like crazy, being fascinated whenever the leading digit changed. He was still playing and asking questions about the numbers 20 minutes later, so I figured it was something worth pursuing.

It was a neat little app, but it didn’t have the same ‘feel’ of wonder as a real wood Counting Box that you can hold in your hand. So I started working on the graphics. I originally tried a brushed steel background, but it looked like a weird alien calculator. I went back to the wood box theme.

Software is obviously different from tangible objects. There are limitations and advantages to each. I found that that a little turn dial doesn’t work very well on a flat glass iPhone screen. Buttons work, dials don’t.

Instead I created a second window that shows the increment/decrement number and control that with arrow buttons. This also allows me to go beyond adding up single digits. Yes, it goes to 11. In fact, you can change the increment amount up to 100! If my son wants to add or subtract by 20 each time then he can. I also added a Zero button and have an option to allow negative numbers. Because it was all software it proved to be much easier (or so I imagine) than wiring up different circuits for minor function changes. When I saw my son getting bored pressing the increment buttons up to 100 I create a keystroke repeat which would kick in if he held the button down for several seconds.

I also noticed that if the red and green buttons didn’t click and depress like real arcade machine buttons it seemed to throw off the experience. There was a missing tactile experience. But it isn’t just all graphics. Acoustical design is just as important as seeing the buttons depress and spring back. These are things we take for granted, but every click and blip had to be designed and created by someone. I actually spent an alarming amount of time just walking around my house pressing in various buttons on appliances and paying attention to how they sounded. Now all the buttons depress and click at various and appropriate sound levels.

My wife didn’t like the original wood background I’d mocked up, so I created a few different ones for her to choose from. They all looked pretty decent, so I decided to add a “design” component to the app where you could choose your background, number color and screen color of your own personal Counting Box. I tried to make all the colors and sounds as ‘realistic’ as possible. I know there’s a whole school of thought that says you should never create software to emulate “real world” devices but it seemed to add so much more warmth and interest and even familiarity to the app in the end.

I actually have some programming and scripting experience, but my last real computer science class was learning how to write Pascal on a VAX machine. Instead of trying to teach myself Objective C for the next 30 years I instead downloaded the free version of GameSalad. It doesn’t require you to know a lick of code and it’s great for projects like this. It probably only took me about 8 – 10 hours to create the things from start to finish (spread over 3 months!) with most of the work being “play” testing and graphic design.

It was an incredibly fun experience and one which our entire family shared. I’m probably going to create an iPad version soon, though I’m a little worried about the spacing of the buttons being too big for a child’s hands. Software is great, but it can’t change the physical size of the hardware it’s run on. Maybe the Kindle Fire’s small screen would lend itself to this a little better. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them. There’s a fine line between overloading an app with features and making it easy enough for someone to use.

  2 comments for “Counting Box

  1. February 3, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Very cool, and a great writeup. Glad that I could inspire this!
    One feature I love on my wooden box version is the stats mode, so I can see how many times each button has been pressed and the highest and lowest values reached. It’s not useful for much other than seeing how obsessive the boy has been, but it’s fun.

  2. Tom
    February 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm


    Wow! Thanks so much for stopping by! I have been quietly obsessed with your counting box (and the Skeeball Marquee) for a while now… I like to say that I made the app for my son, but maybe I really made it for myself. I still like to hit buttons and count by 2’s myself 🙂

    Stats would be a cool feature! Maybe I’ll figure out some way to get that in the next version…

    Thanks for the inspiration and fun (from both me and my kids!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *