# Subitize: The Ability to "See" Small Amounts

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).

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