Little Brains, Big Concepts: Subitizing

Take 5 seconds and look at the image below. How many dots are there?

Now, take a moment to reflect on how you counted the dots. Chances are you didn’t count each dot. Instead, your brain probably grouped the dots by twos, threes, or fours without counting them.

That’s right – our brains can count without actually counting! This ability is so awesome that it has a crazy name that spell check doesn’t recognize: subitizing (pronounced soo-bit-tizing).

The Concept

Subitizing is recognizing how many are in a group without counting each individual item. Subitizing comes from the Latin word for suddenly. You subitize without realizing it all the time – when you immediately recognize the number when a dice is rolled, you’re subitizing.

Our subitizing powers are limited to about 4 objects. For larger groups, like the dot image in the introduction, we chunk objects into groups to figure out how many.

Children learn to subitize early on. Three years olds can subitize groups of two to three. As children become more experienced with number, their subitizing skills become more sophisticated. They’re able to use their subitizing skills to count larger quantities by breaking them into chunks. A key skill here is chunking groups relative to 5 and 10.

Subitizing is easier when objects are arranged in rows and more difficult when objects are arranged in circles or random spots.

Experiences that Develop Understanding

Children develop subitizing skills naturally, but there are things we can do to help them hone these skills. Finger games, dot card games, and ten frames use intentional arrangements to encourage children to subitize. As children play the games multiple times, they become familiar with specific arrangements. Familiarity leads to subitizing as children use the arrangements to chunk quantities into groups.

I want to emphasize the need for repetition here. Children’s brains need to see similar arrangements over and over again in order to develop enough familiarity to subitize. As you play these games with your child, pay attention to how they count objects. Are they counting one by one, or are they quickly grouping sets of 2 or 3? If they’re counting one by one, that’s ok! Remember, these skills take time and every child’s brain develops at its own pace.

One thing you can do to help your child’s brain develop subitizing skills is to ask questions like these while you play:

  • How did you count the dots?
  • Do you know how many without counting one by one?
  • How did you see the dots so quickly? Did you group them?
  • What strategy did you use to count the dots?

Now that you know the basics, let’s look at finger games, dot card games, and ten frames individually.

Finger Games

I love finger games because all you need is your fingers – no printing or manipulatives needed! Here’s how to play:

  1. Together say, “Fingers, fingers, 1, 2, 3, how many fingers do you see?”
  2. Use two hands to show a number. Start small with numbers 1-5, then move up to 10.
  3. Have your child tell you how many fingers you’re showing and show you with their fingers.

Through repeated play, children build subitizing skills as they start to recognize two and three fingers without having to count each finger individually. Check out this post for more on how to use finger games to develop other early math skills.

Dot Card Games

Dot cards are cards that have between 1-10 black dots arranged in a variety of ways. Below are two example sets of dot cards for numbers 1-5, taken from Young Mathematicians.

Here are two of my favorite dot card games:

  • War: Give each player the same number of dot cards, and keep them face down. Flip over one dot card at a 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.
  • Matching: Deal all of the dot cards face up. 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. You can turn this into Memory by turning the dot cards face down.

When you’re first starting to play, start with numbers 1-5. Then, as you become more comfortable with the games, you can include different dot arrangements and numbers 6-10. Check out this post for more on how to use finger games to develop other early math skills.

Ten Frames

A ten frame is a 2 by 5 rectangular frame that helps children develop a mental model of ten. Understanding numbers and their relationship to 10 is one of the most important early math skills. With enough practice, children will use the ten frame structure to subitize quantities in relation to 5 and 10.

To peak your child’s interest, use fun or edible objects to fill in ten frame!

Take Action

  • Try out finger games, dot card games, or ten frames with your child this week! Use the resources below to gather all of the materials you need.
  • Pay attention to how you count quantities. Can you catch yourself subitizing?

Resources

  • Dot Cards
    • For purchase: 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.
    • Printable: PDF 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.
    • Free: Create your own by copying some of the Young Mathematician PDFs. All you need is some paper and a marker!
  • Ten Frame: use this template or make your own!

References

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 https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/oct2017/play-games-learn-math-explore-numbers.

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