Helping kids make sense of numbers

Sabin, Davis, Hetrick, Anderegg, Macalady, Walker, Darling, and Katers

When adults look at six dots on a dice we don’t need to count out the dots. We automatically know the dots mean six. That number sense is called subitizing.

When young children learn subitizing, this immediate recognition leads to mastering other math skills: learning math facts, doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, problem solving and algebra later on. They learn that numbers are made of other numbers. The number 5, for example, is 1+4 or 2+3, and they won’t need to count each time.

When they count larger numbers, they learn to start at a pattern they recognize immediately like 5 or 10 rather than 1 and become faster at math in their head or on paper.

Beginning subitizing

In Singapore, the number one country in math, families often play short math subitizing games to help children learn naturally while having fun.

Parents do a few minutes here, a few minutes there while waiting in line, having snacks, or taking a walk. Talking math and having fun with math a little at a time make a big difference.

You can start with numbers 1 through 5 by drawing a column of 5 attached rectangles on a piece of paper. Put one Cheerio in the first box and say “one.” Then it is your child’s turn to show “one.” Then put a cereal in each of the first two boxes and say “two.” Take turns all the way to five.

Practice by holding up fingers and other objects. Play the same game by making rectangle box patterns found on dice and dominoes. Once children can recognize two, three, four, five, and six dots without counting you’re are ready to play more games. This will take time over a period of days or weeks. All children are different.

Subitizing games

You can play subitizing games randomly. For example, ask children to grab and place a certain number of spoons on the table for dinner, pick out five crayons, or make a pattern of six pieces of fruit.

There are more games. Children like to play dominoes where you match dots. First, explain that an empty domino means nothing, having none, or zero. While playing, check if the children are counting or recognizing the number pattern and help them.

Using dice, call out two numbers one through six. The odds of winning will be better if choosing two numbers. Roll the dice. If the player rolls a chosen number, he earns a penny or piece of cereal.

Families can also purchase or make a card game of Go Fish with only dots or little fish, no numbers. More subitizing games are found on Google and Pinterest. For more activities see and through the seasons, live and podcasts.

Editor’s note: Grandparents Teach, Too is a non-profit organization of elementary and preschool teachers from Marquette, Michigan. The writers include: Jan Sabin, Mary Davis, Jean Hetrick, Cheryl Anderegg, Esther Macalady, Colleen Walker, Fran Darling, and Iris Katers. Their mission since 2009 is to help parents, grandparents, and other caregivers of young children provide fun activities to help prepare young children for school and a life long love of learning. They are supported by Great Start, Parent Awareness of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula Association for the Education of Young Children, Northern Michigan School of Education, the Upper Peninsula Children’s Museum and the Northern Michigan University Center for Economic Education.