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Activities that Support Counting and Early Numerical Understanding

Sep 05, 2023    |   Math & Numeracy

Learning how to count is one of the first foundational math or “number sense” skills that young children develop. While it might seem basic, learning to count is a complex process for little learners that requires guidance from caregivers who can introduce numerical language and model how to count objects.  Early childhood educators can help children build these foundational skills by engaging them in playful, number-themed activities. 

Number Sense as a Learning Foundation

Number sense is a foundational mathematical skill. An article posted by ZERO to THREE describes number sense as “the ability to count accurately—first forward. Then, later in school, children will learn to count backwards. A more complex skill related to number sense is the ability to see relationships between numbers—like adding and subtracting.” 

Once young children have a foundational understanding of numbers and counting, they can build upon that understanding to learn more complex mathematical skills. It’s important for young children to be introduced to numerical concepts during early childhood so that they will be successful in kindergarten and beyond. 

Number Sense & Counting: Activities for Early Learning Programs

Learning to count is foundational to number sense. In her article Counting on Counting, Dr. Platas, chair of the Child and Adolescent Development Department at San Francisco State University, explains, “Counting activities should be intentional, purposeful, playful, and FUN. For the teacher, learning how to include them in the preschool classroom throughout the day requires creativity and planning.” 

To help you get started, below are some fun counting and number sense activities that you might want to try with the early learners in your program.  

Pom-Pom Counting Activity

This simple activity requires only a few items: cupcake liners, a marker, pom-poms, and tongs (these are optional). To set up the activity, write a different number inside each of the cupcake liners, and then encourage the children to use the tongs to place a corresponding number of pom-poms into the liners. Help children name each number and practice counting the pom-poms that go with that number as they put the pompoms into the liners. 

This activity allows children to practice counting and number recognition as they use fine motor skills in their fingers and hands. 

Counting Pine Cones

This fun activity helps children to learn a variety of foundational math skills, including counting, one-to-one correspondence, and number recognition! 

All you’ll need is chalk, pinecones, and some open sidewalk. If you can’t find pinecones, you can also use leaves, twigs, flowers, rocks, and other natural materials that you might find in your outdoor space. To set up the activity, draw numbers on the sidewalk, and encourage little ones to put the correct quantity of pine cones underneath each number. 

Ice Cream Counting Activity using Recycled Materials

This activity requires a little more time to set up, but once it is put together, it can be reused several times. You will need bottle caps, glue, pom-poms, and a recycled piece of cardboard for this activity. Draw cones (triangle shapes) on the bottom of the cardboard and then glue bottle caps to the cardboard above each cone, starting with one bottle cap, then gluing two caps above the next cone, and so on.  Number each cone with the number of bottle caps glued above that cone.

Once the activity is ready to go, set it out for little ones and encourage them to put a pom-pom into each bottle cap. If you have spoons available, these can be used to scoop the pom-poms into the caps. As children work through the activity, talk with them about the different numbers they see and help them count the pom-pom “scoops” on each “ice cream cone.”

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