Preschool math is more than just counting! Learn the 4 essential skills that preschoolers need for a strong foundation in math.
When I began researching preschool homeschool math curriculum when my son was little, I was very disappointed with what I found. Most resources were tedious workbooks with lots of time spent learning to write numbers. Learning how to write numbers is a valuable skill, but it’s handwriting, not math! There were also lots of adorable number crafts available online. Many of them looked fun, but I couldn’t see how sponge-painting a 3 would help him understand the number three much better.
As I dug deeper into the research on how young children’s brains learn math, I found that there are four main skills that young children need to develop:
- Subitizing (recognizing quantities without counting)
- Connecting quantities and written numerals
Counting: more complicated than adults realize
Counting seems very basic, but it is actually very complex. To be able to count accurately, a child has to learn:
- The order of the counting words (“one, two, three,” etc.),
- That any kind of thing can be counted (blocks, sounds, jumps, people, etc.),
- That you have to count each item once and only once,
- That you can count objects in any order,
- That the last number said when counting is the total number. (For example, young children can often point to blocks and say “one, two, three” but aren’t able to say how many blocks there are.)
Because counting is so complex, children need lots of experience with counting activities as they first begin to understand numbers.
Subitizing: recognizing quantities without counting
While learning counting strategies is essential, children also need to learn to recognize groups of items without counting. This skill is called subitizing. Recognizing small quantities helps children start to think of numbers as groups and understand the relationships between numbers.
One useful tool to help children develop this skill is a five-frame. Take a look at the five-frame below. Notice how you can immediately “see” that there are three circles, and that two spots are empty? When you do this, you’re subitizing. Organizing blocks on the five-frame helps develop this crucial skill and helps children move beyond one-by-one counting to solve problems.
Once your child is familiar with the five-frame, it’s then helpful to use a ten-frame. The ten-frame is especially useful for noticing relationships between numbers. For example, can you tell how many blocks are on this ten-frame without counting?
You might have noticed that there is one empty box and figured that there must be nine blocks. Or, you might have noticed that there are five blocks on the left-hand side and four blocks on the right-hand side, for a total of nine blocks. Either way, you were using relationships about numbers to find the total, rather than one-by-one counting. Learning how to subitize will provide a huge advantage to your child when she first encounters written addition and subtraction problems.
Comparing numbers: more, less, or equal?
As children start to visualize quantities and understand numbers more deeply, they learn that the numbers that come later in the counting sequence signify greater amounts than the numbers that come earlier. (I.e., since six comes after five in the counting sequence, six is more than five.)
Before children are able to reach this level of abstraction, however, they need plenty of experience with concrete materials. Once they’ve spent some time comparing numbers of objects, they’re then ready to begin comparing spoken numbers without counting out the corresponding number of objects.
Recognizing written numerals: making the connection between quantities and symbols
Recognizing the written numbers is essentially reading—matching a printed symbol to a spoken word. Before children are ready to deal with the abstract written symbols for numbers (1,2, 3, etc.), they need plenty of experience with quantities and the number words. Written symbols should only be addressed after their basic number knowledge is solid, with lots of time spent making the connections between the written symbols and what children already know about numbers.
Would you like simple, playful math activities to get your own preschooler off to a great start in math? Check out my book, Preschool Math at Home. Based on the activities I used with my own kids, it will show you how to give your young kids a great foundation with numbers in just five minutes a day.