We all knew there were 5 senses but now number sense?

As teachers and  parents, we may use or hear the words ‘number sense’ being thrown out a lot to describe children’s learning in Maths. This refers to the sort of intuition about numbers that we develop over time. The more we work with objects – i.e. hold them, count them, manipulate them – the better our understanding of quantities. Think of having measured a teaspoon of vanilla in about 6 batches of cookies, we tend to have a good idea about how much one teaspoon is.

Number sense also has to do with an understanding of the written number. Young children have to learn that the number ‘3’ refers to a certain quantity of objects. Later, they learn the difference between numbers like 13 and 31, and get a sense of these quantities in their heads.

The best way to develop number sense is to give kids a lot of hands-on opportunities to play with quantities and numbers.  Certain skills are considered to be an important part of number sense, which can be individually learned and practiced (at school and at home):

5 of the common number sense skills children need:

  • Naming numbers and counting: Students learn the pattern of counting numbers (13,14,15 is similar to 21, 22, 23). They learn the relationship between numbers (40 is ten more than 30). They also learn the names of numbers, and begin to have a sense of how many objects each number refers to.
  • Comparing numbers:Students look at which number is greater; 150 or 163? This is also referred to as ‘greater than, less than’. Students need to understand how numbers compare to one another and show an understanding of the words ‘greater than’, ‘less than’, and ‘equal’ and to use the symbols: <, > and =.
  • Odd and even numbers: Even numbers of objects can all be paired up; students can look at it as each number has a ‘friend’. Odd numbers, when put in pairs, have one left without a friend. Initially, students will need to physically count the numbers to see if they can be paired up. This will become more automatic when students have memorized patterns for which numbers are odd and which are even.
  • Sequencing/ordering numbers: If given the number 23, a student should be able to tell me you the next number that comes in the sequence: 24, 25. They should be able to count backwards from a number: 80, 79, 78.
  • Rounding numbers: First and second graders will learn to round 2-digit numbers to the nearest tens place using a number line or another visual. They will learn to tell which number in the tens place is closest to their number, and then round to that number.

Practical activities to do with children at home:

  • Counting activities: counting to 100, counting backwards (up and down steps, backwards jump rope), skip counting (chants, how many shoes in the house?), ordinal numbers
  • Place value activities: counting coins (in stacks of 10), objects (e.g. beans – count 10 and put them in a pile, count another 10 until they don’t make enough to make a 10s pile. Then add the leftover ones)
  • Comparing numbers: guess which is greater (introducing/exposing them to the vocabulary)


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