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October 15, 2012

Number Recognition and Counting

Number sense is  more than merely counting – it involves understanding the different uses for numbers, relationships between numbers, counting, adding, subtracting, ordering, problem solving, recording, division, fractions and multiplication to name a few!1

From just a few days old babies can recognise small groups of up to 3 objects (Macnamar 1996).As toddlers, children are forming comparisons between the sizes of small groups of objects and at about 2 years of age children begin to use the language of comparison such as ‘more’ same and different. Two year olds will ‘count’ in counting language but not necessarily in counting order.2

Recent research believes that the experience of counting in real and different contexts is key in learning to count effectively, and leads to developing understanding of numbers and number operations such as addition and subtraction. Children may begin by using counting words mechanically, repeating them with little meaning attached, they then begin to count objects, gradually  moving to a more sophisticated view of counting and it’s relationship to number 3 The young girl below is joyfully and playfully incorporating numbers into a game linked with her art activity. The counting sequence hows that she knows well one of the functions of counting – ie it can be used as a countdown mechanism to signify the end of making a mark in the made up game.




We believe that children become confident mathematicians through many of the experiences and opportunities they have each day in playgroups, full day care services and of course in the home.  It is in the home that the basis for mathematical thinking, concepts and practices begin.  Imagine the parent climbing the stairs with the toddler. Mum is counting ‘one, two, three’ as they move up each stair.  Apart from the enjoyment and intimacy of being with Mum, the toddler begins to make associations between the number ‘1’ and what that exactly means. 


Children learn about money as they go shopping with parents, and they start to understand the concept of time as they become familiar with the routine of their day– wash, dress, breakfast etc.In this way the learning is very real and relevant to the toddler as it is embedded in a situation that is both familiar and safe.

In the pre-school setting young children sort and classify dinosaurs by type and by size as they gather the big and small Tyrannosauruses, they play games involving sequences, they sing rhymes and songs that involve numbers and fun, they tidy up by sorting all the home corner crockery (plates, saucers and cups by size) and they build train tracks deciding which shape is needed for the game.

Here are some other simple ways of incorporating number and counting opportunities into your service so that children can experience these in their everyday routine and play:



A language rich environment is crucial in developing children’s numeracy and literacy. Discuss with children what numbers are used for, such as keeping score in a game, or finding a street address. Use the language of quantity to make comparisons such as more, the same – ie do we have enough cups for everyone? Next, before, more, fewer, add, take away, left, how many, guess, estimate, nearly, close to, about the same, not enough, too few, zero, nothing, all gone, same, different, first, second, third, more/most, bigger/biggest, fewer/fewest, smaller/smallest, less/least, compare, order, size – are all useful words for encouraging an understanding of number.



Use everyday opportunities as they arise,to count things that are familiar to the children as they play. Counting toy cars, blocks, play money, farm animals and everyday objects that children encounter, will have more meaning for them. Use fingers to count. Put up a finger one at a time as you count it: fingers are tools you always have with you. Demonstrate one-to-one correspondence by purposefully touching each item as you count it.

Have the children join you by counting aloud and/or pointing to the items as you count together. Children also develop their fine motor skills through activities such as threading beads and counting them.

Create basic counting games by counting aloud how long it takes to set the table, put away toys, or put on jackets or wellies. These games can be played in short spans of time and in any place, since no materials are needed.



Display numbers and label items with names, where it is possible and useful in the room. Clocks, telephones, calculators, birthday board, photos with numbers ie house numbers. Have books in the display area with counting pictures; recognition of numbers as symbols or words; adding and subtracting in pictorial form will all contribute to a learners first knowledge of maths. Numbers can also be displayed outside also in creative ways so children can touch and feel them as they count.

numbers outside



Read books with counting themes or repetitive phrases to the children. The pictures should be colourful, engaging and easy to count and the numbers should be easy to identify and printed clearly.As you read a counting book, encourage children to say aloud the number on each page and then count the objects on the page by touching each picture as you count. Touching each picture one time while counting aloud reinforces the concept of one-to-one correspondence.


Songs and rhymes

Use popular children’s songs such as ‘ten in the bed’ to sing and act out the numerical meaning in them. Similarly use action number rhymes and stories



Games such as  marbles, hopscotch, skittles all involve number, as do many mnade up games that children naturally play.  When children are older you can play the “What comes next?” game to help children’s understanding of numbers. For example, say “3,4,5, What comes next?” Have number dice available for board and other games that children enjoy playing.

Notice how the children devise their own rules for maths and counting games, that may differ widely from the ‘correct’ way. Very often, children need this exploratory stage before they are ready to play the game in the usual manner. It frees them of the frustration of something that may still be too hard for them.



Sorting objects helps children to learn that numbers are used to describe quantities and relationships. Encourage children to sort objects looking for similarities in either color, shape, or size, which is an everyday part of tidyup time.Encourage childrent to sort objects by their differences also, like which box is bigger, smaller and so on, within their everyday play.


Role Play

Have a shop  area either /and inside and outside – Shopping role play stimulates both children’s imagination and social development. It is good for language skills and problem-solving, and provides countless opportunities to explore maths. A well-equipped home corner and outdoor area containing resources that children can use to set up shop is vital if we are to support this area of children’s play.4

The village shop in the Garden of Possibilities , a recent Early Childhood Ireland publication, has a fantastic example of an outdoor shop area.
Similarly provide opportunities for dressing up with different clothing and costumes – ie The Three bears.
Provide opportunities in the home area for preparing food and inviting guests for dinner- ie plates for tables etc



Block play

Blocks encourage and provoke mathematical thinking as children explore their properties. Observe children at their block play and take note of their comments and non-verbal problem solving(nw)


Sand and water play

Extend children’s sand and water  play by asking how many sandcastles, how much water do you need to fill the bucket and so on.



Provide paper, pens and clipboards so that children can avail of them in their play. Look out for interesting junk mail with forms and ‘boxes’ for filling in with numbers. Small whiteboards and markers are useful as well as easels for big number writing, and paintbrushes and water can be used outside for non permanent mark marking!



Display: Use low-level boxes or tables at different heights to make it easier to play with the interactive displays.
Storage: Make sure children can see and access resources easily. Shelving with baskets makes the perfect storage. It’s easy to see what’s inside and baskets can be easily transported around the setting. 
Rugs and Cushions: Include a rug and a few cushions for comfort and bring the resources down to the floor as well as at different levels. Look out for cushion covers with numerals printed or stitched onto them and buttons in clusters for counting. 


Involving Parents


Things to think about

  • How do I use language in my setting to encourage number?

  • How do we encourage children to play with number?

  • What opportunities and support do we give children to seek challenges and persist with their problem solving?


Links to Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework

Exploring and Thinking

Aim 3: Children will explore ways to represent ideas, feelings, thoughts, objects, and actions through symbols. In partnership with the adult, children will:

1 make marks and use drawing, painting and model-making to record objects, events and ideas
2 become familiar with and associate symbols (pictures, numbers, letters, and words) with the things they represent  
3 build awareness of the variety of symbols (pictures, print, numbers) used to communicate, and use these in an enjoyable and meaningful way leading to early reading and writing 
5 use letters, words, sentences, numbers, signs, pictures, colour, and shapes to give and record information, to describe and to make sense of their own and others’ experiences 



1&2Montague-Smith,Ann.Mathematics in Nursery Education.London:David Fulton Publishers, 2nd ed.2003




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