All children are born with an innate ability to perceive the difference between 1 and 2 objects. With support and experience, they can quickly perceive and name “how many” for collections of 3, 4, and 5 objects. This mathematical ability is called subitizing. From the Latin word meaning suddenly, the term subitize refers to the ability to "see" a small amount of objects and know “how many” there are instantly without counting.
Not all arrangements of the same number are equally easy to subitize — preschoolers will recognize that there are 5 dots quickly if they are arranged like the corners of a square with a dot in the middle, but may be slower or less sure if the 5 dots are in a straight line, particularly if they are very close together. Understanding that subitizing is innate is a good start, but experience matters, too. Children need many experiences of noticing and naming small quantities in a variety of arrangements to strengthen their number sense.
While it’s important that adults get to hear children count out loud, it’s also important that they acknowledge when children correctly identify a small amount without counting it at all.
The above are excerpts from the Collaborative's book Big Ideas of Early Mathematics: What Teachers of Young Children Need to Know (2014).
Browse our collection of resources tagged SUBITIZING.
August 11, 2020
As children start using number words, they don’t always have a sense of what those words really mean. Early on, we guide children to develop a meaningful number sense by focusing on small numbers.
Quantity is a particular amount of something, expressed as a number. Quantity cards for young children can have pictures of small sets such as dots, finger patterns, or 5- or 10- frames. The ones we have available on our site use a variety of pictures or "suits," since matching quantities such as fingers and dots can help develop ideas about equivalence.
Card games provide meaningful practice of the basic number combinations. These common card games that children learn in school or at home can be revisited many times and can be adapted to children’s own math skills as they develop over time.
Here you can download cards and simple-to-learn game ideas to help young children build their understanding of early math concepts such as cardinality and composing and comparing numbers.
Regardless of how high a preschooler can rote count, a child’s sense of what those numbers actually mean develops gradually. We call this understanding number sense, and it requires relating numbers to real quantities.
This bingo-like game allows children to think about numbers in different ways. It focuses children on the attribute of quantity of small sets and helps them build a more robust number sense.
This game played with a hula hoop and bean bags demonstrates all the math that can be explored with a simple tossing game. Each round gives children practice seeing and naming smaller parts of a total number in a variety of ways.
Moving from one activity to another just got a lot more mathematical with this simple routine that builds early number sense with preschoolers.
Transition time is a great time for mathematizing a daily routine. This dot card transition is a relatively simple routine that builds number sense in a concrete way.