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What is Subitizing?

Subitizing is the ability to easily and quickly identify the number of items in a small group by looking at them. Discover ways 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.

Subitizing, the ability to instantly recognize the number of objects in a small group without the need to count them, is a foundational math skill that sets the stage for more complex mathematical concepts. Teaching preschoolers about subitizing can be both a fun and engaging way to introduce them to the world of numbers and patterns.

In this article, we'll explore creative strategies and activities that not only illuminate the concept of subitizing but also make learning an enjoyable experience for your class. From hands-on games to everyday learning opportunities, get ready to equip your preschoolers with this essential math skill in a way that feels like play.

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. 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.

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How to teach subitizing

When introducing preschoolers to the concept of subitizing, adopting a mindful and deliberate approach is crucial for fostering understanding and excitement about numbers.

Use stories

One effective teaching strategy involves integrating storytelling or thematic contexts that children find relatable. For instance, creating narratives where characters encounter situations that require quick number recognition can help solidify the concept in a meaningful way.

Include visuals

Consistently using visual aids, such as number lines or colorful charts, can visually reinforce the relationships between numbers and actual quantities, making abstract concepts more tangible for young learners.

Encourage discussions about numbers and their patterns

Ask children open-ended questions that prompt them to share how they arrived at an answer. This offers insight into their thought process and provides opportunities for peer learning. This practice not only nurtures critical thinking and problem-solving skills but also promotes a classroom culture where curiosity and exploration are valued.

Make it interactive

Children thrive on interactive learning, where hands-on activities and engaging discussions bring abstract numbers to life, fostering both understanding and enthusiasm in young learners. Using games and fun activities like flashcards, dice games, or sorting objects by numbers can make learning subitizing an exciting and interactive experience.

Incorporate everyday examples

Using everyday examples brings the abstract concept of subitizing into the tangible world for preschoolers and also allows teachers to weave mathematical thinking into the fabric of daily classroom activities. Simple activities such as counting the number of toys on a shelf or the buttons on their shirt can help reinforce this skill in a way that feels natural and effortless for your child.

Consider different learning styles

Personalizing the learning experience by acknowledging and adapting to each child's pace and style of learning is vital. Recognizing that every preschooler has a unique pathway to understanding enables teachers to provide support that resonates with each child, whether it requires additional visual cues, more hands-on practice, or simply more time.

Preschool 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.
  • Flashcards with number sets, tally marks, or dot patterns can help children better understand quantity. Briefly show children a flashcard with a simple image, encouraging them to subitize instead of counting each item.

Interactive subitizing games

Engage in interactive subitizing games to enhance number sense and rapid recognition skills.

Dot card flash

Create dot cards with different patterns and numbers of dots up to five. Show the cards to the children briefly, and then ask them to tell you how many dots they saw. This game sharpens their quick-recognition skills and is a fun challenge.

Subitizing Simon Says

Play a game of Simon Says with a twist—use subitizing concepts. For instance, "Simon says show me three fingers." This not only gets them moving but also integrates number recognition with physical activity.

Subitizing bingo

Make bingo cards with different numbers and patterns representing quantities up to five. Call out a number, and the children have to find a pattern on their bingo card that represents that number. This game is fantastic for group settings and encourages peer learning.

Everyday subitizing opportunities

Everyday classroom life presents numerous opportunities for subitizing skills to be practiced and honed.

Snack time counts

Utilize snack time as a learning opportunity. Arrange snacks in small groups and ask the children to identify the number of snacks without counting them one by one. This method turns a routine activity into a learning experience.

Outdoor adventures

Turn a walk or playtime outside into a subitizing lesson. Point out groups of objects, like birds on a wire or flowers in a garden, and ask the children how many they see. This strategy helps children connect mathematical concepts with the world around them.

Dice help teach subitizing skills.

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 concept for children to learn as they develop their early math skills. By weaving these approaches into daily lessons, educators can build a strong mathematical foundation for their students in an engaging and inclusive manner.

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