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Path to Math: Beginning Numbers

child plays with letter blocks

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.

Use the language of numbers.

  • Use words such as 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?”

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Model use of alternative communication (e.g., pictures, icons, communication devices, sign language) to use math words.
  • Adapt language to child’s level with initial concepts such as more, less, big, small.
  • Ask children questions such as “Which is more? Which is less?” Begin with significantly varied quantities to compare (e.g., compare 10 keys with 2 keys, compare a one-inch stick with six-inch stick).

Make numbers part of the daily routine.

  • Have children “sign in” by moving a name tag 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. Have a helper give one glue stick to each child at their table.
  • Encourage voting on classroom issues. “Ten people want apples for snack Friday. Seven want crackers.”

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • To determine the number of children who are absent, have students count pictures of the children who are not at school. 
  • Children can “vote with their bodies” to make the process more concrete. For example, when deciding whether to have apples or crackers for snack, place the apples at one table and the crackers at another. Children “vote” by walking to their preferred table.

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 such as One Potato Two Potato.
  • Teach active games such as Farmer in the Dell, scavenger hunts, and variations on bowling.

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Provide peer partners to help model game objectives such as rolling a ball to strike down the cone with the number 2 on it.
  • Create visual “rules” for how to participate in each game. For example, for tic-tac-toe, use a photo of one child placing an “X” in a square and a photo of a different child placing an “O” in another square. Finally, show a picture of three “X” s or three “O”s circled to indicate how to win.

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?” “We voted on our favorite book. How many people chose Caps for Sale? How many more chose Corduroy?”
  • 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 and discuss what they find. “How many numbers did you see on our clock?”
  • 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. . .”).

Adaptations for children with significant support needs

  • Use muffin tins to count items. Children can place items in each hole of the tin while you count.
  • When teaching songs and fingerplays, use tangible items that your child can manipulate or observe you manipulating. For example, for “Five Little Ducks,” use rubber duck toys to act out the song.

IEL Resource

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2023