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Number Sense – What It Is And How To Help Kids Develop It

Having a number sense and a good mathematics education is important for kids, even for preschoolers. Let’s find out what it is and how we can help our kids develop this important skill.

What Is Number Sense?

Number sense is an intuitive understanding of numbers in terms of their magnitudes, relative relationships and how they are modified by operations. Number sense represents a child’s fluidity and flexibility with numbers.

The ability to apply number sense in mathematics boosts the foundation of a child’s mathematics education. Research shows that proficiency in early number sense is highly predictive of children’s later mathematics achievement​1,2​.

Number sense is present in infancy and develops well before children enter school​3​. Using number talks, parents and preschool teachers can help kids develop the framework and concept of number from an early age​4​.

Number talks are short daily exercises aimed at helping kids develop number sense through thinking about the different math facts and concepts. Researchers found that quantity and quality of number-related experiences that occur in the home were related to preschoolers’ numerical knowledge in low-income families​5​. The more students are exposed to math-related conversations, the more number sense they will acquire and the better their math skills.

Parents can help their preschoolers improve their number sense by simply using more math talk and illustration to deliver number information in daily interactions.

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girl writes math equation with numbers on transparent board showing how to teach number sense

How to Teach Kids Number Sense

Here are some teaching strategies and math-related activities you can use to help your child master number sense in early home environment.

1. Counting

5 hands with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 fingers - preschool math example of number sense

Counting is knowing the counting words (e.g. 1, 2, 3, …) and using them to count each object in a set. You can apply this to many different objects and events in daily interactions.

“Oh, wow, Grace has so many teeth. Let’s count how many she has 1, 2, 3, … 8.”
“I have some marbles here. Let’s count them 1, 2, 3, …”
“Let’s count how many days we still have before Thanksgiving.”
“Can you count the number of people at the table?”
“This is how you play this board game. You roll a dice and it shows 4 dots on top. So you move your piece forward by 4 steps.”

2. Fractions

Parents can teach children the concept of fraction when measuring out cooking ingredients.

“This is a quarter cup of water.”
“The two of you can share this pizza with each other. You will both get one-half of it.”

3. Comparing

Comparing the magnitude of two numbers or groups of objects can teach children the comparison concept.

“Your brother has 2 candies but you have 3. So you have more candies than him.”
“Can you tell which plate holds more apple slices?”
“Here are two cups of milk. Do you want the cup with more milk or the one with less?”

4. Estimation

You can teach the estimating skills easily at home, especially in the kitchen.

“I only need half a table spoon of salt here. Can you please get it for me?”
“Can you help me pour the soup? Make sure that each bowl has roughly the same amount of soup in it.”

5. Addition

Addition forms the basics of mathematics. There are many different opportunities to instill number sense in these two operations.

“I only have 4 pears but we have 6 people. I need to go to the grocery store to get 2 more so that each person will get one.”
“There were 4 sodas when I left the room, but now there’s only 1 left. Did you guys drink the other 3 cans?”

5. Subtraction

Addition and subtraction are reciprocal calculation problems. They can often be introduced together.

“Here’s a question for you. We had 10 cherries in our bowl but Nancy took 2. How many cherries are left?”
“There are 5 cookies on the plate, but I only want 2. How many can you have? What is the difference of 5 and 2?”

6. Ordering

Ordering is arranging items in a set in sequence according to their size or quantities.

“We just finished page 4. The next page is page 5.”
“What comes after 0, 1 and 2?”
“We have 3 bowls of M&Ms here. One has 5. One has 4 and one has 6. Can you use your number sense to put them in order?”

7. Placeholding

Placeholding refers to place values such as ones, tens, hundreds, etc.

“This is not seven-two. It’s seventy-two. It’s seven tens plus two ones”
“137 is One hundred thirty-seven.”


  1. 1.
    Cross CT, Woods TA, Schweingruber HE. Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood: Paths toward Excellence and Equity. National Academies Press; 2009.
  2. 2.
    Jordan NC, Glutting J, Ramineni C. The importance of number sense to mathematics achievement in first and third grades. Learning and Individual Differences. Published online April 2010:82-88. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2009.07.004
  3. 3.
    Dehaene S. The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics. OUP; 2011.
  4. 4.
    Klibanoff RS, Levine SC, Huttenlocher J, Vasilyeva M, Hedges LV. Preschool children’s mathematical knowledge: The effect of teacher “math talk.” Developmental Psychology. Published online 2006:59-69. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.1.59
  5. 5.
    Ramani GB, Rowe ML, Eason SH, Leech KA. Math talk during informal learning activities in Head Start families. Cognitive Development. Published online July 2015:15-33. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2014.11.002

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