Math Games for Young Mathematicians: Dot Games

This post is part of a series of posts centered around the topic of math games. Previous posts discussed choosing the right game, creating a positive environment, and how you can use your fingers to play games. Today, we’ll dive into one of my favorites: dot games!

Quick reminder: You can maximize the potential of math games by bringing out the math while playing. Asking your child to explain their thinking and connect ideas develops their math brain by strengthening connections and building pathways.

The Math

In order to bring out the math, you need to have a basic understanding of the math your child is learning. Just like finger games, dot games are all about building number sense. In addition to cardinality, one-to-one correspondence, decomposition, and subitizing, dot games also build the relationship between numerals, number words, and quantity.

As you review the (beautiful) diagrams below, I encourage you to take a moment to let this sink in: You are literally helping your your child understand what numbers are!

How to Play

Dot cards are cards that have between 1-10 black dots arranged in a variety of ways. Here is an example of dot cards for the number 5, taken from Young Mathematicians.

Each color above represents a set of dot cards. Each set includes a card for numbers 1-10, with the dots arranged in a similar way. For example, the set of teal cards shows dots arranged like a dice, and the set of yellow cards shows dots arranged in a ten frame.

There are so many games you can play with dot cards! When you’re first starting to play, start with numbers 1-5 of two sets, such as the green dice set and the yellow ten frame set. Then, as you become more comfortable with the games, you can include different dot arrangements and numbers 6-10.

Cover and Count: Give your child one dot card and some tokens (paper clips, coins, etc.). Have them cover each dot one at a time with a token, counting out loud as they do so, until they have covered each dot. Ask, How many dots are there?

Matching: Deal all of the dot cards face up (see the sample layout below). Take turns finding cards with the same number of dots. Once a player finds a match, they take the pair of cards until all cards are gone.

Sample game layout for Matching, Can you find…, and Memory

Can you find…: Deal all of the dot cards face up. Players take turns saying, “Can you find a card with…(a number 1-5) dots?” The other player looks for a card with that number of dots and picks it up. Alternatively, instead of saying the number word, show the numeral card.

Memory: Deal all of the dot cards face down. Take turns flipping over two cards. If the cards match, the player keeps the pair and goes again. If they don’t match, flip the cards back over, and it’s the next player’s turn.

Make 5/Make 10: Instead of matching cards with the same number of dots, match cards that add up to 5 or 10 dots.

War: Give each player the same number of dot cards, and keep them face down. Flip over once dot card at at time. The player with the most dots wins and takes the cards. The player with the most cards at the end of the game wins. You can extend this game by having players flip over two cards, and the player with the highest sum wins.

Connecting the Math

The specialty of dot games is their ability to build subitizing skills. The strategic arrangement of dots helps children break numbers into smaller groups. With enough practice, children will be able to identify pairs or triplets without counting the dots. This also develops the concept of composing and decomposing numbers as children start to see that the same number can be broken up in a variety of ways.

There are so many ways to count 5 dots!

Dot games build one-to-one correspondence as children count each dot and cardinality as they say the last number counted is the total number of fingers. Dot cards also emphasize the flexible side of math as children come to see that numbers can be represented in multiple ways.

Lastly, dot games build the connection between the number names, numerals, and quantity.

Bring out the Math

  • Ask, How did you count the dots? Then, pay attention to how your child is counting the dots. Are they counting one by one or are they subitizing?
  • Ask, What other ways can we count the dots?
  • Ask, Which card has one more than this one? Which card has one less?
  • Switch it up: Switch between saying the number name (“three”) and showing the card with the numeral (3)
  • Build in finger awareness: Have your child show the number of dots with their fingers.
  • Say your own thought process out loud: I thought about it this way: I saw this group of dots as 2 and this group of dots as 3. 2 dots and 3 dots make 5 dots.
  • Avoid adding an element of speed to the games. These games are all about building numeracy skills, not speed skills!

Take Action

  • Get your hands on a deck of dot cards!
    • I highly recommend purchasing Tiny Polka Dot (~$15). This game is made of bright and colorful dot cards that kids love. It also includes instructions for 16 games and a parent guide.
    • You can also find many printable and free options. I recommend these dot cards from Young Mathematicians (scroll down to get to the section titled “Game Materials and Dot Card Printables”). In addition to PDFs of the cards, you’ll also find tips and tricks for playing.
    • Create your own by copying some of the Young Mathematician PDFs. All you need is some paper and a marker!
  • Choose one of the dot games from this post (or make up your own!) to play this week with your child.
  • Ahead of time, choose 2-3 questions you will ask during play to bring out the math.


Reed, K. and Young, J. (2018). Math Games to Excite Young Minds. Development and Research in Early Math Education. Retrieved from

Reed, K. and Young, J. (2017). Play Games, Learn Math! Explore Numbers and Counting with Dot Card and Finger Games. Teaching Young Children 11(1). Retrieved from

NAEYC and NCTM. 2010) Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings. NAEYC/NTCTM Joint Position Statement.

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