What is Subitizing?

How to practice this important math skill with your preschoolers.

What is Subitizing?

What is Subitizing?

The ability to quickly identify the number of people or items in a small group without counting is called subitizing. Understanding this concept lays the foundation for an overall understanding of numbers and math. Exposing children to subitizing at an early age through simple activities will help them develop their early mathematical skills and prepare them for more complex problem-solving in the future.

What is subitizing?

The term subitizing refers to the ability to quickly recognize how many items are in a small set without counting. While the concept may seem simple, subitizing is essential in building a solid number sense. One's ability to quickly understand and visualize numbers impacts how one sees and counts patterns and determines relationships between numbers, all crucial skills that support an overall understanding of math.

A child plays with a toy for learning numbers and counting.


Types of subitizing

There are two types of subitizing: perceptual and conceptual. Perceptual subitizing is the simplest type — even animals can do it. It’s the ability to see many items and recognize the number without hesitation. These items are typically separated from each other and apply to a set of five or fewer. For example, exposing children to visual stimuli like patterns of four or five objects helps build this skill.

On the other hand, conceptual subitizing is a more advanced skill that relies on one's ability to see and identify patterns and sets in smaller groups and use that to calculate the total within larger groups. An example of this type is identifying the number of dots on dominoes. 

Why is subitizing important?

For starters, subitizing helps save time by eliminating the need to count each individual object. But more importantly, it's the precursor to more complex ideas and mathematical concepts such as basic number sense skills or understanding, relating, and connecting numbers. 

With this concept, children can develop and strengthen their counting abilities, use different problem-solving strategies, and handle complex number relationships like sequencing and grouping. This essential skill helps to improve children's math literacy and development. Some studies have found that mastering subitizing quantities up to four by age five is a major milestone.

How to teach subitizing

If you're preparing to teach your children the concept of subitizing, the first step is to expose them to number patterns that they can easily recognize. Starting with perceptual subitizing is key as it helps prepare your children for success. They'll be able to identify smaller sets of numbers first before proceeding to sets of six and up. Once children master the ability to subitize, they’ll learn more skills such as composing (bringing together) and decomposing (breaking apart) numbers.

Practice makes perfect, so use items such as:

  • Flashcards
  • Games (dice, dominos, cards)
  • Five frames
  • Ten frames and more

Dominoes used for teaching subtilizing.


Different subitizing activities

There are a variety of tools and activities that you can incorporate into your subitizing lessons. 

  • Dice is one of the most popular subitizing tools. The dots on the die makes it easy for children to develop and demonstrate their skills. 
  • Dominos are another popular teaching method. You can incorporate them into your lessons by laying them on the children's desks face down, flipping them over, and having your children guess how many dots there are without hesitation.
  • Decks of cards have specific patterns to help children improve their subitizing skills. Like dominoes, you can easily lay the cards face down and flip them over to have children quickly answer how many spares, clubs, diamonds, or hearts there are. (Don't forget to cover the number on the card.)
  • Dot charts aren’t only helpful to your children, but they're also a great DIY option. You can easily make your own by taking a paper plate or sheet of paper and randomly placing or creating a pattern of dots.
  • Quick images are large flashcards with number sets, tally marks, or dot patterns. This activity helps children better understand quantity. You'll briefly show children a simple image, encouraging them to subitize instead of counting each item.

Dice help teach subitizing skills.

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

Daily Lesson Plan Template - brightwheel-1

Download our free daily lesson plan template!

Subitizing mistakes to avoid

It's common for teachers to make errors when teaching subitizing. Some commonly seen mistakes during these lessons are:

  • Including “quick images” that aren’t actually quick and easy to subitize
  • Encouraging your children to count
  • Using only one kind of image
  • Including too many numbers in the beginning
  • Only focusing on the answer

Plan your subitizing teaching strategy

Subitizing is an important skill for children to learn as they develop their mathematical foundation. Incorporating these types of activities using dice, dominoes, or playing cards can help strengthen children’s pattern recognition skills and general understanding of numbers.



Subscribe to the brightwheel blog