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Developing a sense of number in the Early Years

Children come into the Early Years Foundation Stage with an array of mathematical abilities and understanding of number. Their world may be filled with numbers (for example in books, television and film, nursery rhymes and songs, shops, signs, counting with parents) but that does not necessarily mean they have an understanding of number sense. 

Early Years and Kindergarten teachers will assess the children in their class within the first couple of weeks to build a picture of every child's understanding, skills and knowledge in many areas, number is one such area. When asked to count to 10 or 20, a 4 year old will happily plough through a mantra learned by heart to impress the teacher/parents/whoever asks. That child will think they can count to 10 but rhyming off numbers is not counting. This rhyming of a number sentence is certainly a skill that children learn at an early age, the next step is to learn the value of each number, its cardinal, and this is best done using practical, concrete objects. I have found when you give a young child a set of objects to count, the counting activity and its correct result could depend on the following.
  1. The number of objects given to count
  2. The number of objects the child is able to count confidently
  3. How long the number sentence mantra is the child has learned
  4. Whether a finger is used to count or not
  5. Whether the child looks at the objects whilst counting them or looks at you
  6. How the objects are placed
Point 6 is one which I started using more and more with children to assess whether the counting strategy used was a mixture of points 1 to 5 or if they had started to develop the cardinal of a number. Try this, look at the following groups of objects. How many are in each group? Try to do this without counting the objects individually then check by counting.

You will most likely have counted them using either fig. 2 or 3 as these use an arrangement we are familiar with. If you checked by individually counting the objects you will have found fig.1 to have one less than the others, it has 14. Now, how did you count the objects in fig.1? Did you start at the top and work your way across and down in lines, or did you start at the bottom and work up? Did you employ another method? A 4 year old child will probably not have developed such a method to work out the value of the group so may start counting from a random dot and go over the actual number due to counting over dots again, or count to a known high number in the hope of impressing you. What we take for granted is in fact a difficult and challenging concept for many young children to grasp. 

By counting the group of dots correctly in fig.1, the child has moved from merely using number names to recognising that numbers have a value. The next step is to develop an understanding that numbers can be added together and I'll explore this in my next blogpost. 


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