Early years maths mastery: boosting number sense

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on January 20, 2020.

Number sense is important for learners of all ages — but it’s especially important during the early years. So how do you get the fundamentals right?

Learning to count in the early years is a fundamental skill, and is the key to mastering mathematical concepts in the future. But learning to count is way harder than you might think!

Researchers Gelman and Gallistel came up with steps needed to successfully count:

  1. The one-to-one principle: children need to name each object they count and realise that there are two sets, a group that has been counted and a group that needs to be counted.
  2. The stable order principle: the next step is for children to know how to count in the right order.
  3. The cardinal principle: now children have to realise that the last number in the set is the total amount of the set.
  4. Counting anything: children are then required to realise that you can actually count anything! Not just objects that can be touched, but also things like claps, or jumps.
  5. Order of counting doesn’t matter: the final stage of counting is when children realise that the order of counting in the set is irrelevant and will still lead to the same amount.

Identifying these steps and assessing children to find out which part they are struggling with is key to helping children overcome their difficulties and be confident counters by the end of the early years.

Boosting number sense in the early years

Number sense is fundamental for children in their early years education. Children need lots of opportunities to develop number sense and deepen their conceptual understanding. Carefully setting up provision can really help with this.

Here are some simple activities that you can try with your learners to get them counting.

Activity #1: crowd control

In my classroom, I display the number of children allowed in each area of provision using pictorial representations of cubes on a ten frame.

Once the children begin to realise how many children are allowed in the area they start to discuss the meaning of more and less. For example, “no more children are allowed in”, or “you can come in because one more than 3 is 4”.

My learners come up with some amazing reasoning and maths talk. One day, when a child entered the water area, another child stated, “you can’t come in here because there are 4 already in here. Look 1, 2, 3, 4. If you come in then there will be 5 and that’s too many”.

Children have also previously made links to their knowledge in maths such as “5 people can have a snack. I know 5 and another 5 makes 10”. It’s such a simple and easy way to gain number sense in the early years!

Activity #2: bunny ears

Here’s a quick number sense activity with no resources needed (just little fingers). In small groups or as a whole-class starter, encourage the children to create bunny ears by showing numbers using their fingers above their head.

You could say, “bunny ears 6”. The children place their fingers above their head to show 6. In this example, they may decide to use 3 fingers and another 3 fingers.

As the children become more confident you could introduce ‘swap’ into the activity. The children are still asked to represent a number (in this case 6) but in a different way, for instance, 2 fingers and 4 fingers.

You could also discuss why we need to use both hands; “can we show 6 on one hand?”, “why not?”

Activity #3: grouping straws

As you go into the summer term in Reception, grouping straws into tens is a great way for children to understand exactly what the number 10 looks and even feels like as a quantity.

Each morning as you enter Reception, drop different amounts of art straws all over the carpet. Say something like, “oh no class I can’t believe it; I’ve dropped all my straws again. They were all in 10s can you help me?”

Your class will automatically start engaging in problem solving and of course, they all want to help the teacher!

This activity is a great way to help children consolidate counting objects. It also gets them to think about stopping after they have made 10. Providing elastic bands to tie around 10 straws helps the children to keep track of their groups of 10.

To make it harder throughout the week you can give children amounts that are not multiples of 10 such as 34.

Observing what children decide to do when they are struggling to make another 10 provides a real insight into their depth of understanding of numbers within 10. Do children explain that they need 6 more to make 10? Do children still place an elastic band around 4?

Activity #4: fastest ten frames

When children are more confident using a ten frame, this game can help you to identify the groups of children that have developed a good understanding of number sense and those that are still on their way and need further support.

In groups of five or six, each child has their own ten frame and 10 cubes. Give the children a number and observe how they place the cubes on the ten frame.

For example, the number 8. Do children have to say each number name as they place the cube on the ten frame? Do children realise that 8 is 2 less than 10 and can they place the cubes down faster than other children?

It’s interesting to see what children do when you say the next number. For example, changing the amount from 8 to 5 cubes; do children automatically remove 3 cubes and become the winner? Or do they remove all of the cubes and start counting from 1 to 5 again?

Discussing a systematic approach will really help children understand place value and get them closer to winning next time!

The more time you can spend counting objects, the more children start to make connections and develop their number sense. If learners can leave the early years as confident counters, they’ll be set up for success in Year 1.

Gelman, R., and Gallistel, C., (1978), The child’s Understanding of Number, Cambridge: MA Harvard University Press.

Foundations — Your Reception Solution

This Early Years mastery programme encourages learning through play and sets children on a path to a deep understanding of maths.

two maths mastery students standing on either side of a bag of animal toys