12/04/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Helping Children Make Sense of Numbers: Number Sense

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Number sense is one of the most difficult concepts to teach young children. Why? Because it's abstract.

For children to grasp number sense, they need to understand that an abstract symbol (the number 3 or 8, for example) means an amount or quantity that could apply to anything. They need to learn that the number 7 can stand for the girls in the room, cups in a box, blocks on a table, pieces of a puzzle or how many scrapes they have on their leg. And they need to learn that a 6 stands for fewer things than a 9, even though there's no way to understand that just by looking at the numbers themselves.

But once children develop number sense, wow! -- their math abilities can really take off!

Young learners love knowing that numbers can represent everything from a single, little pebble in the palm of their hand to the billions of grains of sand on a beach. For curious children and those who truly understand what numbers and their symbols represent, numbers are like magic!

To teach number sense to your young child, begin with the numbers 1 to 10 because we use a base 10 system, and these are the numbers that young learners are most familiar with. Try to give your child as many oral -- and visual -- counting experiences as possible during his or her first five years.

Here are some of the many simple activities that can help your child to develop number sense:

  • Count out loud with your child whenever possible, so he or she hears numbers frequently and learns to associate them with objects in the world. For example, you might say, "How many toes are on your foot? One, two, three, four, five. Five toes!" or "How many socks are in your drawer? Let's count them!"
  • Help your child learn that the quantities you are counting can be written down with a symbol, called a number. You might say, "Now that you can count to 10, let me show you how you can write the numbers that you count!"

1        2        3         4        5         6        7        8        9        10

  • Talk about numbers--what they mean to you and how you use them. Explain how you use them to measure ingredients in a recipe or how tall he or she is; to count your money; to tell time; to pay your bills; to use the numbers on a telephone, a TV remote, and a computer keyboard; as well as to identify your street address.
  • Help your child see math in their everyday world. You might say something like, "When you counted all of these letters that we got in the mail today, you counted six of them. We can write that like this: 6. And if we received one more letter, we would have seven, which is the next number after six. One, two, three, four, five, six... seven."
  • Place magnetic numbers on your refrigerator or on a baking pan. Move the numbers to place next to the things your child counts while you are cooking.
  • Compare numbers: Count goldfish or other small crackers into groups of different sizes to help your child to see that a group of two crackers, for example, is smaller than a group of five crackers. Or, count blocks as you stack them up. Then show that a stack of six blocks is much taller than a stack of three.
  • As your child is learning to count to 20, talk to him or her about how the pattern of numbers is different after number 10 and that some of the numbers, like 11, 12, 13, 15, don't sound like the numbers your child is familiar with. (This makes 11 through 20 the hardest group of numbers for children to learn.)
  • Indicate that once your child counts beyond 10, he or she will count using tens and ones. Explain that 20 means two tens and zero ones; 21 means two tens and one one; 22 means two tens and two ones, and so on.
  • Play with dominoes: Have your child match the number patterns on the dominoes. Have him or her count how many fives are in the set of dominoes. Count with your child to show how two of the fives equal ten.
  • Make a numbers chart: Start with a big piece of cardboard, but write only the numbers 1-10 across the top. After a few weeks of working with your child, add the numbers 11-20 in the next row, creating columns, then 21-30, and eventually over weeks and months, build up the chart to 100. Then use this numbers chart to introduce addition gradually. For example, point to the number 2, and then count two more on the chart to show 2 + 2 = 4.

Read many books about numbers and number sense. Some exciting and interesting ones your child should enjoy are:

  • The Icky Bug Counting Book by Jerry Pallotta
  • 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle
  • Centipede's One Hundred Shoes by Tony Ross
  • Fall Is Here! Counting 1-10 by Pamela Jane
  • Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed by Eileen Christelow
  • Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree by Eileen Christelow

Numbers are sometimes intimidating to children. But by introducing math concepts early and showing how numbers are part of your world, you'll help your child to develop number sense early, and you're helping him or her to enjoy math more because your youngster is learning it with you!

Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D., is a Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the company that operates