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Developing number knowledge in early childhood

Oct 1, 2021 | Early Childhood, Mathematics

The Australian and New Zealand early childhood curriculums recognise that mathematics is one of the languages children need to learn to be able to communicate successfully. The most commonly taught mathematical concept in the early years is number. But, developing number knowledge is more than just learning to count. Here are some ideas to freshen up your number teaching and learning!

Here are some ideas to freshen up your number teaching and learning

Establishing a sense of number order

A sense of number is important because it provides the initial foundation for constructing future mathematical understanding. Children need to understand what numbers are and be able to use them in everyday context before they can move on in their learning.

A sense of number provides the initial foundation for constructing future mathematical understanding

A sense of number and knowledge of number order is underpinned by the following concepts:

  • knowing that each number has a name
  • understanding that zero is a number
  • knowing that each number follows the next in a specific sequence
  • understanding that no matter which number you start from, the order remains the same
  • knowing that numbers 13 to 19 end in a ‘teen’
  • knowing that multiples of 10 end in ‘y’.

Children learn about number order by reciting numbers in sequence. This usually involves singing counting rhymes and songs on a daily basis. The outdoors also presents opportunities to combine physical movement with counting, which is not only fun but helps to embed knowledge of number order.

Activity: Take the students outside and ask them to be rockets. Get them to stand tall with their arms stretched up like rockets. Tell them you are going to count down from 10 and they can shout BLAST OFF and ‘fly’ around.

Developing number knowledge through counting

Counting is an essential skill that we continually use throughout each and every day. For instance, when driving, shopping, cooking, eating and sharing things out. Being able to count accurately is the precursor to quantifying and calculating.

Counting is an essential skill that we continually use throughout

Counting involves the following skills and concepts:

  • being able to recite number names in order
  • counting one object at a time and linking that number to the object
  • remembering which object you start counting from
  • counting in a logical sequence so as not to count the same object twice
  • knowing that the number said on the last object is the total amount for the group
  • understanding that anything can be counted including claps, jumps and sounds
  • understanding that zero represents a set of nothing.

Opportunities can be presented outside by placing counting books in tents or on a comfortable rug. The outdoor environment itself offers plenty of unique opportunities to plan meaningful activities that give children a reason to count. Eg, shells, sticks, stones and trees.

Activity: You will need a box with a lid and a collection of small toy animals. Place animals in the box and count out the number with the children. Have several turns where nothing is in the box and say, “There are zero animals in the box.”

Developing number recognition

Number recognition is essential for dates, times, addresses, phone numbers, television channels, recipes, prices and distances. This skill is absolutely essential for being able to function within society at the most basic level. It is also important for progression in mathematical thinking and developing number knowledge.

Number recognition is essential

Recognising numbers involves the following concepts:

  • knowing that numbers are represented by numerals
  • knowing that zero is a number
  • understanding that numbers can have one, two, three or more digits
  • recognising that numerals 1, 4, 7 and 9 look different when presented in various fonts and handwriting.

It is important that we have different areas where numbers are visible. There are many outdoor games where this is possible.

– Hide a set of numbers all around an area. Send small groups of children off to find them, bring them back and arrange them to form a number line.
– Go for a walk and look for numbers in the local environment.

Promoting number recording

Being able to record numbers is important because it enables children to organise their mathematical thinking. If they start to keep note of quantities, by using tally marks for instance, a more complex thinking is developing. This leads to calculating.

Being able to record numbers is important

Recording numbers involves the following skills:

  • being able to recognise numbers
  • being able to hold and use a mark-making tool
  • knowing that numbers have meaning
  • understanding that number can represent a set of objects.

Children learn about the purpose of recording numbers by watching others engage in mathematical mark-making.

Activity: Set up an obstacle course. Offer some children clipboards with black paper. Every time their friend completes one circuit on the course, they can make a mark on the sheet.

Children develop mathematical sense by trying things out and playing with ideas. Enjoy doing the same thing when developing number knowledge!

This article was based on content from the popular Essential Resources titles Developing Early Maths Skills Outdoors by Marianne Sargent and Developing Early Maths through Story by Marion Leeper and Tracey Muir. For more on teaching maths in early childhood, see Marianne Knaus’ article Using incidental opportunities to talk about maths and our other articles on mathematical concepts.


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