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Developing number sense and counting skills in prekindergarten

by Jose Lema and Karen Petty


Four-year-olds Daniel, Marisol, and Oscar are playing in the math center when Ms. Guzman asks, “How many bears do you have all together?”

“Six,” the children respond. They start counting the bears: 1,2,3,4,5,6. Oscar finds the number 6 in the basket and says, “This is number 6.”



In this math center activity, the children are demonstrating a beginning level of number sense and counting. The development of these skills begins naturally in the early years of a child’s life but can be enhanced when pre-K teachers intentionally provide additional math activities.


Why are number sense and counting important in prekindergarten?
According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2008), the growing importance of mathematics has encouraged schools nationwide to implement mathematics instruction, focusing on acquiring number sense and counting as early as prekindergarten. This instruction enables young children to understand numbers by making connections between quantities and counting. The council (2000, 2008) recommends that children in prekindergarten through second grade be able to count with understanding and to recognize how many objects are in a set.

Rosalind Charlesworth, a former math professor and author of a classic math textbook for early childhood, has suggested that prekindergarten children should develop an understanding of mathematical concepts, such as the following:
relative position: the location of an object or number;
size of whole numbers: a process of combining and separating objects, using terms such as more, less, and the same as;
ordinal numbers: the first, the second, or the tenth object, for example; and
cardinal numbers: how many items are in a set, counting the last number (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012).

These concepts connect to enhance a child’s understanding of number sense and counting. Children can develop an understanding of whole numbers, be able to use numbers in various situations through real-world experience, and use physical materials.

The National Mathematics Panel, appointed by the U. S. Department of Education, has reported that learning number sense and counting helps children succeed in mathematics in later grades (2008) and eventually compete in job markets. Early acquisition of number sense can provide a strong foundation for young children as they grow older and seek to earn college degrees in various disciplines such as computer science, engineering, medicine, and physical and biological sciences.

These disciplines require students to grasp mathematical concepts and to gain the ability to apply them in everyday activities. Laying the groundwork early is one more way that young children can obtain a foundation in mathematics that will serve them now and in the future.

Kindergarten mathematics assessment scores have predicted later mathematics and literacy success, paving the way for prekindergarten teachers to focus on developing knowledge and understanding of how young children develop number sense and counting (Dunphy, 2009).


Teachers’ challenges
In meeting the new national recommendations for prekindergarten, many teachers face difficulties. Some teachers tend to place more emphasis on social and emotional development than on mathematics, believing that social and emotional development is more essential at this age. Others believe that literacy, art, or science must be prioritized.

However, all these content areas in conjunction with mathematics can influence children’s overall achievement in a collaborative manner. Understanding prekindergarten mathematical learning is crucial in overcoming teachers’ own perceptions because they tend to misunderstand how prekindergarten children acquire mathematical knowledge and develop related thinking skills (Clements, et al., 2011). This is a challenge teachers must overcome in order to implement a well-balanced, coordinated prekindergarten curriculum across all content areas.

When teachers understand the developmental progression of mathematics, including number sense and counting and place a high value upon them, children often acquire these skills with little effort. The learning trajectories have three components: goals, developmental paths, and instructional tasks. These elements help preschool teachers develop instructional sequences (Clements, et al., 2011).

It is essential that teachers consider the differences and capabilities of children in teaching mathematical concepts. Overcoming their own perceptions is crucial because teachers tend to prioritize which mathematical concepts are important to teach based on their beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge of preschool mathematics (Chen, et al., 2014).

Developing teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge is necessary in order to meet the requirements of the new national standards for prekindergarten. Many teachers lack the understanding of how children learn these concepts, especially teachers that may not have deep content and pedagogical mathematical knowledge (Munro, 2017).

Teachers can improve their skills through professional development that targets number sense and counting. Standards that can address this need are the following:
knowing number names and the counting sequences,
counting forward beginning from a given number within a known sequence, and
understanding that the last number name said tells the number of objects counted (Jordan et. al, 2012).


Targeting and developing number sense in prekindergarten
As stated, number sense is understanding numbers by making connections between quantities and counting that enable children to grasp quantities. Two definitions give a fuller explanation.

According to Jordan and colleagues (2012), number sense is the “understanding of numbers and operations, such as knowing that each number in the counting sequence is always one more than the one that comes right before it or one less than the number that comes right after.”

Charlesworth and Lind (2009), on the other hand, point out that number sense is using common sense based on the way numbers and tools work. It helps prekindergarten children to detect errors and to choose logical approaches and strategies to solve mathematics problems.

Because developing number sense and counting is one of the most fundamental skills for prekindergarten children, curriculum developers and researchers are interested in supporting its conceptual development (National Research Council, 2009).

Research indicates that developing number sense in prekindergarten settings prepares children to learn more complex mathematics concepts in kindergarten and beyond. These concepts include the following:
place value: the value of a number by its place or position in the numeric system,
number composition: making a whole number from parts, and
number decomposition: breaking down numbers into their sub-parts (Tsamir et al., 2015).

In addition, children can begin to learn basic arithmetic operations involving addition and subtraction (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012).

Studies emphasize that counting and number relationships develop slowly over the first seven years of a child’s life (Clements, et al., 2011). Prekindergarten children count in mechanical or rote fashion, using number concepts as they develop number sense.

These concepts may occur when children engage in activities such as the following:
Rote counting: Counting aloud by rote memory and reciting numbers orally from 1 to 10 when asked. They may also count by 2’s or 5’s but they don’t necessarily know what two-ness or five-ness is.
One-to-one correspondence: Reciting number words that match the objects counted. They touch an object only one time when it is counted or place one object each time in a tray while counting.
Rational counting: Understanding (after mastering rote counting and one-to-one correspondence) that the biggest number is the last number they counted. For example, when children can place a number with a correct set of objects, they are counting rationally.
Subitizing: Visually recognizing a small number of items at a glance or when shown briefly without taking time to count them.
Adaptive strategies to solve simple story problems (Witzel, 2012), which includes visualization of number symbols. For example, a teacher adds magnetic ducklings next to a barn picture and says:

“Let’s place one duckling by the barn door.

Let’s add another duckling so we have two.

Another duckling makes it three!

The Mama Duck makes four,

And the Papa Duck makes five.

Let’s count again: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.”


Counting in prekindergarten
Developing counting skills is essential in prekindergarten and takes time and intentional preparation of activities by the teacher. McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch (2012) have outlined five prekindergarten counting concepts: counting principle, stable order principle, cardinality principle, abstraction principle, and irrelevance principle. These principles support children’s grasp of mathematic concepts, including counting as they move through kindergarten and beyond.

Counting principle. This principle is one-to-one correspondence—that is, naming one number in counting each object. Children can count with fingers or move objects while counting. Also, they can count the sounds of beats when they play drums or xylophones. The counting principle helps children to understand subitizing by identifying the number of objects in a group without counting (Howell & Kemp, 2010).

Stable order principle. Children recognize the number words as they rote count objects (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012). For example, children can name each number as one, two, three, four, five, and so forth. The sets of counting words are the same. Helping prekindergarten children recognize different quantities associated with each number is important. Children learn to count backward and forward. Also, they understand how to place different sized objects in order from smallest to largest.

All these elements are based on quantities. Understanding the stable order principle helps children to distinguish between numbers that might not represent a quantity such as a clock, telephone numbers, a home address, or a calendar.

Cardinal principle. This principle states that the last number in a group or set represents how many items are in the group (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012). For example, by counting numbers in the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 children can determine that 6 dictates how many numbers or objects are in a group.

This skill helps children learn how to compare quantities using words such as the same, more, and fewer. Children develop this skill gradually. They may be able to identify the total in a group as having 5 objects; however, they might not succeed using different amounts such as 10. Thus, the ability to understand cardinality varies with each child (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012).

Abstraction principle. Children can count in any direction; however, the total number of objects or items is always the same (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch 2012). To help them understand this principle, teachers can guide children to count different items, such as bears, color cubes, and pennies.

By guiding children in the use of these objects, teachers are providing instruction in understanding abstract symbols, such as numerals, letters, and written words and numbers. Children may then begin to associate non-physical items or objects such as sounds and imaginary objects by matching different groups of objects with the same amount.

Also, using manipulatives such as small toys, blocks, and beads presented through visual aids such as graphs, charts, and pictures provide children with hands-on, concrete examples (Wizel, et al., 2012).

Order irrelevance principle. This principle demonstrates that the order of counting is not relevant as long as the set of items remains the same. In other words, when children count from one end to the other, the number of items in the set stays the same.

This skill helps children understand the part and the whole as they move to the upper grades (McGuire, Kinzie, & Berch, 2012). Children can also make connections through engagement in activities requiring identification of size, shapes, and colors.


Tips for developing number sense and counting
Teachers can offer many activities to enhance number sense and counting. At this age, children learn best through hands-on, concrete experiences.

Children can practice rote counting when they engage in counting songs, finger plays, and rhymes, such as the following:
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5 I Caught a Fish Alive”
“The Ants Go Marching 1 by 1”
“One Potato, Two Potato”
“Johnny Works with One Hammer”
“Five Little Ducks Went Swimming One Day”
“Five Little Monkeys”

In the manipulatives center, children can learn rational counting through games that involve matching each numeral with a set of objects. For example, they can match one acorn picture to a tree picture with the number 1, two acorn pictures to the tree marked 2, and so forth.

Another game is five-frames—that is, cards show 5 rows, and each row has 5 squares. Children place the appropriate number of objects in each row to represent 0-5.

Children can learn subitizing through games using dice or cards with dots. They can also be given colored beads and invited to match the color pattern in a string of beads, such as red, red, blue, yellow, yellow, yellow, red, red, and so forth.


Integrating number sense and counting across the pre-K curriculum
Integration across the curriculum can occur in several ways, including informal counting in play and center activities. Besides the manipulatives/math center, children can learn math concepts in the blocks center, using unit blocks, Legos®, and other building materials.

In the art center, children can draw and paint a certain number of items. In the library center or at group time, the teacher can read stories that feature numbers, such as “The Three Little Pigs.” In the science center, children can create graphs of rocks by color or count the days until bean seeds sprout (Charlesworth & Lind, 2009).

In addition, children can engage in number sense and counting activities naturally through daily activities. As children arrive in the morning, for example, the teacher can count children who are present and place their photos on the bulletin board.

On the playground, a teacher can invite children to count the steps leading to the top of the slide, the acorns and pecans gathered from the trees, and the red, yellow, and brown leaves.

Reinforcing number sense and counting across the curriculum can be done with little effort, and the benefits are many.


Building the foundation for higher level math
Children explore and gather information about their world through play, observation, and intentionally designed activities. Their knowledge and skill in mathematics begins in early childhood and continues throughout the school years.

Developing number sense and key counting concepts in prekindergarten can equip children with the necessary mathematics skills and confidence they will need through kindergarten and beyond. Children can learn the necessary mathematics skills that become building blocks to academic success while preparing them to enter high-demand professions in their future.


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About the authors
Jose Lema is a doctoral student at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, pursuing a degree in early childhood education. He has more than six years of experience as a prekindergarten teacher in public school.

Karen Petty, PhD, is a professor of early child development and education in Family Sciences at Texas Woman’s University. She has more than 20 years of experience as a professor and 20 years of experience as a teacher of young children that includes being a child care program director.