Sitio en español

Tip Sheets

IEL Tip Sheet: Path to Math: Beginning Numbers About

Children ages 3-5 are learning that anything they count needs a “number name” (one block, two blocks) and that the list of number names has a set order (1-2-3-4). They may know that numbers stand for certain quantities. They notice that amounts change when things are added or removed. Here are some ways you can help preschool children learn about numbers. (See Illinois Early Learning and Development Benchmarks 6.A.ECa Count with understanding and recognize “how many” in small sets up to 5., 6.A.ECb Use subitizing (the rapid and accurate judgment of how many items there are without counting) to identify the number of objects in sets of 4 or less., 6.A.ECc Understand and appropriately use informal or everyday terms that mean zero, such as “none” or “nothing”., 6.A.ECd Connect numbers to quantities they represent using physical models and informal representations., 6.B.ECb Show understanding of how to count out and construct sets of objects of a given number up to 5.View sample lesson plan, 6.C.ECa Estimate number of objects in a small set., 6.D.ECa Compare two collections to see if they are equal or determine which is more, using a procedure of the child’s choice., and 10.B.ECa Organize, represent, and analyze information using concrete objects, pictures, and graphs, with teacher support. View sample lesson plan   View module for activities.)

Use the language of numbers.

  • Use words like amount, enough, none, before/after, most, pair, take away.
  • Help children ask and answer thought-provoking questions involving numbers: “How many of our caterpillars haven’t made cocoons?” “Do I have more silver keys or more gold keys? How can you tell?”

Make numbers part of the daily routine.

  • Have children “sign in” by moving a nametag or other token from one basket to another. They can count leftover tokens to find out how many are absent.
  • Ask children to set tables with one napkin and one cup per chair.
  • Encourage voting on classroom issues. “Ten people want apples for snack Friday. Seven want crackers.”

Provide games that involve numbers and counting.

  • Teach card games such as Go Fish, War (Top That), Animal Rummy.
  • Provide games such as Tic Tac Toe, Mancala, Checkers.
  • Use “choosing” games like One Potato Two Potato.
  • Teach active games such as Farmer in the Dell, scavenger hunts, and variations on bowling.

Offer activities that promote working with numbers.

  • Ask children to use tally marks to answer questions such as “How many cars in the lot?” or “Who has a pet at home?” They can tabulate the marks as a group.
  • Help children construct graphs to compare amounts: “Did more people eat plain popcorn or cheese popcorn?”
  • Provide blocks, integer rods, plastic animals, coins, etc., for making rows, pairs, and other groupings.
  • Teach songs or fingerplays such as “Five Little Ducks” or “Ten Green Bottles.”
  • Invite children to “hunt” for numbers around them.
  • Post a number line and a 0-100 chart where the children can easily use them.
  • Model using the principles of counting. Touch each object when counting aloud (“One bag, two bags, three bags. . .”).
September 2013


For more ideas related to number and counting with young children, see the following Web resources:

IEL Resource

  • Counting Crackers (IEL Video) AboutLanguage Arts, Mathematics, Social/Emotional Development

Other Tip Sheets in this series

Printer-friendly version

About this Tip Sheet

Search for more Tip Sheets

Quick Search

Search for resources on the following topic(s):

or perform your own search.


The opinions, resources, and referrals provided on the IEL Web site are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to take the place of medical or legal advice, or of other appropriate services. We encourage you to seek direct local assistance from a qualified professional if necessary before taking action.

The content of the IEL Web site does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education; nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the Illinois Early Learning Project, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, or the Illinois State Board of Education.