Number Sense: Understanding How Numbers Work

What Kids Need to Learn

Number sense encompasses many skills. In the broadest sense, children need to learn how numbers up to 100 relate to each other and get a feel for the quantities that the numbers refer to. More specifically, kids need to develop solid skills in counting to 100, understand odd and even numbers, be able to compare numbers to see which is greater or smaller, estimate quantities, and develop place value skills.

Putting the Math in Context

Number Sense In kindergarten, children learned to count and compare numbers, and did a lot of hands-on work with objects and quantities up to 10.

In first grade, they will compare, estimate, count, and manipulate numbers up to 100.

Children in second grade will continue developing these skills, but will work with numbers up to 1,000.

Why It's Important

There are 35 pennies on the table. When you ask your child how many pennies she thinks are on the table, her guesses vary widely: "Fifty! A hundred! Ten!" There is almost no rhyme or reason to the guesses. First graders simply have not had that much exposure to numbers and quantities.

Estimation, repeated counting, and exposure to quantities and numerals are necessary to help kids get a handle on how big or small things are, and how quantities relate to each other. These skills can give kids a glimpse into how the world around them works. Without solid number sense, children are limited to rote learning, and math may not make sense to them.

Math Challenges Kids Might Face

Without strong number sense skills, you can expect first graders to:

  • get confused when reading or writing 2-digit numbers, such as mixing up 75 with 57
  • take wild guesses when asked to estimate how many objects they are looking at
  • have no idea how to solve basic word problems or do other kinds of math reasoning
  • be limited to counting, adding and subtracting on fingers--can't do mental calculations
  • have a very hard time learning regrouping

Math Help That Could Make the Difference

Three words: practice, practice, practice! The best way to develop strong number sense in kids is to give them lots and lots of chances to work with, play with, and mess around with numbers. Model an attitude of wonder and curiosity. There are numbers everywhere: in newspapers, in books, on street signs, on houses, on cell phones, computers, microwaves, license plates. And those are just the written numbers. Our world is made up of quantities, of things that are more and things that are less. And for the ultimate countable motivator, let's not forget money!

Children who have a weak sense of numbers may have a broad range of problems in math, but the good news is that it is not hard to find ways to work and play with numbers. To get you started, be sure to check out our Number Sense Activities, the 1st Grade Math Games, our Counting Activities and Counting Games. You can also find articles on specific math areas on the First Grade Math page.

Whiz Kids

Number sense is one of those things you can hardly get too much of. If you have a child who is a whiz with numbers, who uses clear reasoning to figure out problems, and who loves the challenge of exploring and manipulating numbers, encourage that curious spirit! Look for numbers everywhere you go; wonder aloud at how many pennies you'll have when the jar is full; count things and add them and subtract them and generally just encourage your child to find out all about the world using the wonders of math.


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“Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself. ”
~John Dewey