7 Fun Ways for Young Learners to Develop Number Sense

When parents of young learners seek enrichment advice, they’re often met with suggestions about building early literacy.

But the importance of cultivating math skills in early childhood is often undervalued and overlooked. Giving children a running start in both reading and math — the focuses of the Kumon program — will enable them to develop confidence and comprehension in the classroom. Having a strong foundation in number sense and fluency also equips students to tackle sometimes-daunting word problems and be better prepared for their academics later in life.

Here are a few enrichment activities parents can do with their children to get their synapses firing — while they’re having fun. It’s also worth noting that the best age to start each of these varies from child to child. Your 18-month-old may not be able to handle some, and your 5-year-old may think a few are too easy. You know your child best.

1. Playing Simple Card Games

Playing card games is a great way for kids to learn about numbers up to 10. The cards between two and 10 not only have numerals printed on them — they also contain the number of symbols that add up to the value of the card. This graphic reinforcement helps students to conceptually understand what each numeric symbol represents.

There are many card games that are appropriate even for young learners: Go Fish, War, and Concentration. Go Fish helps children with pairing numbers, War develops the ability to discern which of two numbers is greater, and Concentration enables students to begin to hold mental images of numbers in their minds.

2. Recognizing Numbers in Sequence

It is good for young children to be able to see the numbers in context as they are learning how to associate the written symbol with the spoken word. Connecting dots that are numbered is a fun way for students to combine drawing and counting — they’re simultaneously developing fine motor skills and number recognition abilities.

Another (slightly more advanced) way of learning sequences is with a number board, which typically consists of colored tiles inlaid on a square grid. They differ in numbers of tiles — some may have only 30 while others can be as large as 100. Let your little one start by simply matching tiles with their appropriate places on the board. To ramp up the difficulty, have them place only even, or only odd numbers back on the board. They could also try counting by threes, or fives, or tens. The spatial and tactile nature of these exercises will help kids learn to count in different increments, both in and out of sequence.

As we know, kids love to race. Parents can use a stopwatch to make completing a number board (in any order they choose) more exciting, and comparing previous times will enable children to feel a sense of progress — and to practice subtraction.

A good real-world test of number-sequencing skills is an elevator. The next time you find yourself in one, challenge your young learner to find a number quickly without needing to recite the whole sequence first.

3. Counting Anything and Everything

One of the best and easiest math-related activities you can do with your young children is to ask them to count real objects. By counting real things, they can use their own experiences with objects to understand numbers better.

You can have them count food items — how many string beans do they have on their plate? — or have them help you measure quantities — like a half-cup of water in a recipe. Another technique is to count the same type of coin starting with pennies. They you can move on to nickels and dimes. After kids learn how to count by ones, fives, and tens, you can mix up different types of coins and ask them to add up the change.

When children get good at counting, the next challenge can be to ask them to count numbers backwards. The ability to count backwards provides a strong foundation for children starting to learn about subtraction.

4. Calculating Items and Prices

A garage, stoop, or yard sale is an opportunity for you to sell items you no longer need — and it also presents the opportunity for your child to count items and help customers add up totals. Another fun family activity that will allow your kids to exercise their price-calculating talents is a lemonade stand. Not only will they be able to measure ingredients (number of lemons, volumes of water and sugar), but they’ll be able to practice their subtraction skills by making change for customers.

5. Recognizing Numbers Out of Sequence

Numbers are all around us, and their omnipresence provides an opportunity for parents to ask kids to read them aloud. An opportunity could arise with the price on a clothing item or the house number on a street address. Whatever the context, the ability to identify numbers out of sequence is a fundamental component to initial number fluency.

6. Tracking the Temperature

You can use either a high-tech or low-tech approach for this one. Use calendar and weather apps (or an actual calendar and a thermometer) to record the highest temperature each day. You can review your records with your child and ask about the fluctuation in numbers. What is the difference between the high yesterday and the high today? Which day this week was the hottest? Which day was the coolest? How many days this month had the same high temperature? If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you might even do a similar activity with humidity. Or wind speed. Or if you live somewhere especially snowy, measure the accumulation every day.

7. Telling Time

More often than not these days, we read times on a digital clock. Using an analog watch that has numbers and moving hands, however, enables children to start thinking about the concept of fractions while learning how to tell time. This is also a great opportunity to introduce your child to phrases that adults take for granted, like “half-past” or “quarter-to.”

Check out Kumon’s website to find more information on its enrichment programs. You can also find additional articles and resources about early childhood education on Noodle.