Teaching Math to Young Children for Families and Caregivers

Numbers and Operations

Overview

Children are naturally interested in numbers and finding out “how much” and “how many.” They learn to use their developing number skills to compare who has more blocks or to find out how many crackers are in their lunch boxes. Children then begin to learn that number symbols can represent many different quantities, such as how many blocks they have, how old they are, or what day of the month it is. With concrete objects and in everyday contexts, they will start to build the skills they need to answer “plus one” and “minus one” number problems.

Video

Early Childhood Math: Number and Operations
This video introduces four ways you can build your child’s number skills. Following the video, you can review more activities to do during your everyday routines and play to have fun with numbers. The activities are presented in order of how the related skills typically develop for young children. For example, number recognition and counting are pre-requisite skills for comparing and problem solving.

Quick Tips, Resources and Activities

Recognizing small numbers or subitizing means to practice recognizing the total number of objects in small collections (one to three items) and labeling them with a number word without needing to count them. Subitizing is an important strategy that your child will use one day to support more complex problem-solving.

Quick Tips:

• Gather any small collection of objects (one to three blocks or crayons) and ask “How many (objects) do I have? Without counting.”
• During mealtime, ask your child to quickly name–without counting–how many pieces of fruit are on their plate at snack, or how many cups or napkins are on the table.

Handouts:

• (Coming Soon)

At young ages, you may hear your child say numbers that they have heard you or a sibling say, but out of order. Eventually, verbal counting develops into one-to-one counting–saying the correct number for each object, then identifying the last number counted as the total number of objects in a set (cardinality), and then counting out a collection of objects correctly. Mastering each of these steps in the development of counting can be challenging for your child, but there are ways you can help.

Quick Tips:

• Help your child learn that counting is a way to answer the question “how many?” Ask them to tell you “how many” there are of something when you read together, at mealtimes, or while playing.
• To support your child’s understanding of the total number in a set of objects (cardinality), adults can model counting. Start with a small number of objects, point to each object as you count, circle all the objects in the group with your finger, and repeat the last number in the counting sequence. Eventually, children will count larger collections accurately, and, with practice and support, they will figure out that the last number in a set is the same as the total number without having to recount.

Handouts:

• (Coming Soon)

Once children can accurately recognize number (subitizing) or count to answer how many objects are in a collection, they are ready to compare numbers. Keep in mind that children develop counting and number recognition at different rates. It is OK if your child is still working on these foundational skills for a while. Repeating activities is OK too if you and your child are having fun and want to spend more time mastering foundational skills before moving onto comparing.

Quick Tips:

• At mealtime, ask “Which plate has more or fewer grapes?” After your child responds, it’s a great opportunity to discuss what “more” and “fewer” mean.
• Provide examples for your child to compare when amounts are “equal” and explain what it means to have the same amount of something.
• Once your child is comfortable making verbal comparisons, encourage him or her to use counting to compare the size of two groups of objects.

Handouts:

• (Coming Soon)

Sometimes, children may already recognize numerals (number symbols, e.g., 1, 5, 8) in the world around them–such as numbers on a street sign or poster–before they are able to count. However, once children have a basic understanding of numbers and counting, it may become easier for them to learn about numerals and how they can represent amounts of something.

Quick Tips:

• When your child counts a group of objects, such as their stuffed animal collection, try writing the number for how many they counted so that the child starts to learn that the numeral, objects, and spoken word represent the same thing.
• For children who do not yet recognize numerals, you can also use dots next to the numeral for them to count and figure out what the numeral indicates.

Handouts:

• (Coming Soon)

Once your child develops basic number skills, they can begin using their subitizing, counting, and comparing strategies to perform simple adding and subtracting problems.

Quick Tips:

• Provide your child with opportunities to practice adding and subtracting or to solve problems with “more” and “fewer”. For example, as your child eats his or her snack, ask them to count how many items they have. Next, introduce a problem-solving opportunity by asking “How many will you have after you eat one?” or “How many will you have after your friend gives you one?” Because the number will change, this activity provides good practice for understanding comparisons of more and fewer and combining or removing objects.

Handouts:

This information was prepared by Regional Educational Laboratories Appalachia, Central, and Northwest