Preschool number activities

© 2008 -2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Preschool number activities often involve counting, but merely reciting the number words isn't enough.

Kids also need to develop "number sense," an intuitive feeling for the actual quantity associated with a given number.

That's where these activities can help. Inspired by research, the following games encourage kids to think about several key concepts, including:

• Relative magnitudes

• The one-to-one principle of numerosity (two sets are equal if the items in each set can be matched, one-to-one, with no items left over)

• The one-to-one principle of counting (each item to be counted is counted once and only once)

• The stable order principle (number words must be recited in the same order)

• The principle of increasing magnitudes (the later number words refer to greater numerosities)

• The cardinal principle (the last word counted represents the numerosity of the set)

Most activities use a set of cards and counting tokens. Here’s what you need to get started.

Preparing for preschool number activities


Cards will be used in two ways, (1) as displays of dots for kids to count, and (2) as templates for kids to cover with tokens. Make your cards from heavy-stock writing paper, marking each with an Arabic numeral (1-10) and the corresponding number of dots.

Make your dots conspicuous, and space them far enough apart that your child can easily place one and only one token on top of each dot. The larger your tokens, the larger your cards will need to be.

In addition, you might make multiple cards for the same number--each card bearing dots arranged in different configurations. For example, one “three" card might show three dots arranged in a triangular configuration. Another might show the dots arranged in a line. Still another might show the dots that appear to have been placed randomly. But whatever your configuration, leave enough space between dots for your child to place a token over each dot.


Kids can use a variety of objects for tokens, but keep in mind two points.

1. Children under the age of three years are at special risk of choking, so choose big tokens. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a ball-shaped object is unsafe if it is smaller than a 1.75" diameter golf ball. Other objects are unsafe if they can fit inside a tube with a diameter of 1.25" inches.

2. Kids can get distracted if your tokens are too interesting, so it's best to avoid the fancy plastic frogs or spiders (Petersen and McNeil 2012).

As you can see from the photographs, I've used large, plastic poker chips, which can double as pretend currency for use in other games.

Games to play

One you have your cards and tokens, you can play any of the preschool number activities below. As you play, keep in mind the points raised in my evidence-based guide to preschool math lessons:

• Start small. It’s important to adjust the game to your child’s attention span and developmental level. For beginners, this means counting tasks that focus on very small numbers (up to 3 or 4).

• Keep it fun. If it’s not playful and fun, it’s time to stop.

• Be patient. It takes young children about a year to learn how the counting system works.

The basic game: One-to-one matching

Place a card, face up, before your child. Then ask your child to place the correct number of tokens on the card—one token over each dot.

After the child has finished the task, replace the card and tokens and start again with a new card.

Once your child has got the hang of this, you can modify the game by helping your child count each token as he puts it in place.

The Tea Party: Relative magnitudes

Choose two cards, each displaying a different number of dots, taking care that the cards differ by a ratio of at least 2:1. For instance, try 1 vs. 2, 2 vs. 4, and 2 vs. 5. You can also try larger numbers, like 6 vs. 12.

Next, set one card in front of your child and the other in front of you. Have your child cover all the dots with tokens (pretending they are cookies) and ask her

“Which of us has more cookies?"

After she answers you, you can count to check the answer. But I’d skip this step if you are working with larger numbers (like 6 vs. 12) that are beyond your child’s current grasp. You don’t want to make this game feel like a tedious exercise.

As your child becomes better at this game, you can try somewhat smaller ratios (like 5 vs. 9).

And for another variant, ask your child to compare the total amount of cookies shared between you with the cookies represented on another, third card. In recent experiments, adults who practiced making these sorts of “guesstimates" experienced a boost in their basic arithmetic skills (Park and Brannon 2013).

Bigger and bigger: Increasing magnitudes

Instead of playing with the tokens, have your child place the cards side-by-side in correct numeric sequence.

For beginners, try this with very small numbers (1, 2, 3) and with numbers that vary by a large degree (e.g., 1, 3, 6, 12).

Sharing at the tea party: The one-to-one principle

This idea comes from experiments done by Brian Butterworth and his colleagues (2008). Choose three toy creatures as party attendees and have your child set the table—providing one and only plate, cup, and spoon to each toy. Then give your child a set of “cookies" (tokens or real edibles) and ask her to share these among the party guests so they each receive the same amount. Make it simple by giving your child 6 or 9 tokens so that none will be left over.

As always, go at your child’s pace and quit if it isn’t fun.

If your child makes a mistake and gives one creature too many tokens, you can play the part of another creature and complain.

You can also play the part of tea party host and deliberately make a mistake. Ask for your child’s help? Did someone get too many tokens? Or not enough? Have your child fix it.

Once your child gets the hang of things, try providing him with one token too many and discuss what to do about this "leftover."

One solution is to divide the remainder into three equal bits. But your child may come up with other, non-mathematical solutions, like eating the extra bit himself.

Matching patterns: Counting and numerosity

Play the basic game as described above, but instead of having your child place the tokens directly over the dots, have your child place the tokens alongside the card. Ask your child to arrange his tokens in the same pattern that is illustrated on the card. And count!

Matching patterns: Conservation of number

For this game, use cards bearing dots only--no numerals. To play, place two cards--each bearing the same number of dots, but arranged in different patterns--side by side.

Ask your child to recreate each pattern using his tokens. When she’s done, help her count the number of tokens in each pattern. The patterns look different, but they use the same number of dots/tokens.

Spot the goof: The one-to-one and cardinal principles

Here’s another activity based on published experiments.

In one study, researchers asked preschoolers to watch--and help--a rather incompetent puppet count a set of objects (Gelman et al 1986). The puppet would occasionally violate the one-to-one principle by double-counting (e.g., “one, two, three, three, four...). He also sometimes skipped an object or repeated the wrong cardinal value.

Kids ranging in age from 3 to 5 were pretty good at detecting these violations. So your child might have fun correcting your own puppet at home.

What if your child doesn’t notice an error? Correct the puppet yourself. And either way, ask your child to explain what went wrong. In another, similar study, researchers found that preschoolers didn’t make conceptual progress unless they were asked to explain the puppet's mistakes (Muldoon et al 2007).

The cookie maker: Making predictions about changes to a set

Even before kids master counting, they can learn about the concepts of addition and subtraction. Have a puppet “bake cookies" (a set of tokens) and ask your child to count the cookies (helping if necessary). Then then have the puppet bake one more cookie and add it to the set.

Are there more cookies or fewer cookies now? Ask your child to predict how many cookies are left. Then count again to check the answer.

Try the same thing with subtraction by having the puppet eat a cookie.

Don’t expect answers that are precise and correct. But you may find that your child is good at getting the gist. When researchers asked 3-, 4- and 5-year olds to perform similar tasks, they found that 90% of the predictions went in the right direction (Zur and Gelman 2004).

The Big Race: Increasing magnitudes and the number line

As your child begins to master the first few number words, you can also try these research-tested preschool number activities for teaching kids about the number line.

References: Preschool number activities

Butterworth B, Reeve R, and Lloyd D. 2008. Numerical thought with and without words: Evidence from indigenous Australian children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(35): 13179-13184.

Gelman R, Meck E, and Merkin S. 1986. Young children’s numerical competence. Cognitive Development 1(1): 1-29.

Muldoon KP, Lewis C, Francis B. 2007. Using cardinality to compare quantities: the role of social-cognitive conflict in early numeracy. Developmental Psychology 10(5):694-711.

Park J and Brannon EM. 2013. Training the Approximate Number System Improves Math Proficiency. Psychological Science 2013 Aug 6 2013. doi:10.1177/0956797613482944. [Epub ahead of print]

Petersen LA and McNeil NM. 2012. Effects of Perceptually Rich Manipulatives on Preschoolers' Counting Performance: Established Knowledge Counts. Child Dev. 2012 Dec 13. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12028. [Epub ahead of print]

Zur O and Gelman R. 2004. Young children can add and subtract by predicting and checking. Early childhood Research Quarterly 19: 121-137.

Content of "Preschool number activities" last modified 8/13

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