What is Number Sense?

Teach children how to develop their number sense skills to build a foundation that can support more complex skills and math development.

What is Number Sense?

What is Number Sense?

Math skills are essential to a child's development, from number recognition and counting to addition and subtraction. There are many concepts and topics for them to learn that include number sense. While the term may be unfamiliar to many, the concept is instrumental to how children understand math and, ultimately, how they relate to and operate in the real world.

A child plays with numbers to help strengthen their number sense.Source

What is number sense?

Popularized by the French author and cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene in 1997, number sense refers to one's sense of what numbers mean. It's the ability to understand, use, and connect numbers to solve mathematical problems and patterns. It also impacts how to:

  • Use numbers to make decisions
  • Develop strategies when counting, measuring, and estimating
  • Use numbers in flexible ways to subtract, add, multiply, and divide


For children of a young age, number sense is critical as it helps them form a relationship with numbers, enables more complex problem-solving as they get older, and builds a foundation for an overall understanding of math. Number sense encompasses several concepts such as: 

  • Subitizing (identifying the number of items at first glance)
  • Composing numbers (addition) 
  • Decomposing numbers (subtraction) 
  • Number order and sequencing 
  • Number identification 
  • Quantification (numbers associated with an exact quantity)
  • Understanding mathematical symbols

When and how does number sense develop?

Children start to develop number sense at an early age. So while children as young as two years old may not be able to count, they can easily identify one to three objects in what's called subitizing. Number sense develops through lots of practice, simulated situations, and real-life experiences. 

A child plays with an abacus or wooden counting tool to strengthen their number sense skills.Source

Although learning and problem solving with paper and pencil is a tried and true method, mathematical experts recommend incorporating more hands-on strategies into teaching and building math skills. This can help children think, process information, and engage.

Number sense development involves:

  • Recognizing, reading, and interpreting numbers
  • Grasping concepts such as more, less, least, and most 
  • Sharing and counting with whole numbers

Over time, children begin to understand math and numbers and how it fits into real-life contexts. Preschools consistently teaching number sense skills can prepare children for future success and more complex math as they advance in their education.

Types of number sense activities

Games and activities vary depending on the child's stage and age. The below activities can help to develop new ideas and procedures for handling numbers. 

Moveable objects

At an early age, activities that involve moveable objects, such as blocks and counters, can give children the experience they need through physically manipulating objects. They can easily create sub-groups and combine groups.

Dot cards

Dot cards are cards with dot stickers or stamped dots on them. Each card has various combinations and arrangements. Children are shown the cards briefly and asked how many dots they see and then can go into detail about how they came to that answer. This can help children develop basic number sense skills before moving on to more advanced strategies. 


Matching numbers to quantities can be done using objects like dots, blocks, playing cards, and dominoes.

Number of the day

Number of the day helps children focus on a specific number to learn as much about it as possible. This includes how it's spelled and written, where it falls in the sequence of numbers, how it looks when items are grouped, and more.

A number of the day poster that’s used for teaching number sense.Source

Incorporate number sense activities in your lesson plans to reinforce key learning objectives. Download our daily lesson plan template and customize to suit your teaching style and children's needs. 

Download our free daily lesson plan template!

Good vs. poor number sense

Some children have stronger number sense than others. Struggles with number sense often appear early in children. Those with poor number sense could struggle with basic math, impacting how well they handle daily tasks such as time management and measuring. They may have more difficulty in estimating an answer and applying strategies to problem-solving. However, if a child has poor number sense, their skills can improve with practice, time, and patience, giving them the space to explore, get creative, and play with numbers. 

As for children with good number sense, specific tasks may come easier to them. They're more fluent and flexible with numbers and can often visualize them and compute math problems mentally instead of using a pencil and paper. In addition, they can identify connections between numbers, spot patterns, and talk comfortably about them. All of this can help with predicting and calculating future outcomes.

Lastly, children with strong number sense can incorporate them into real-life situations. For example, they'll be able to handle a math problem such as, "If 10 students are in the class and only six went on the field trip, how many students didn't go?"

Help your preschoolers develop their number sense

As you prepare your children to learn about numbers and build their number sense skills, focus on incorporating engaging and hands-on activities into your lesson plans to build a solid foundation. Future math skills rely heavily on their relationship and familiarity with numbers early on.

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