Building Number Sense: Creative Strategies for Counting and Operations

It is important for young learners to develop a strong foundation in number sense. Number sense involves a child’s understanding of numbers, their relationships, and their use in various operations. By incorporating creative and engaging strategies, teachers and parents can help children develop a solid number sense.

What is Number Sense?

Number sense refers to a person’s ability to understand, relate to, and work with numbers. For young children, this includes:

  • Recognizing and writing numbers
  • Understanding the concept of more and less
  • Performing basic arithmetic operations
  • Grasping the idea of counting and cardinality

Building strong number sense is vital because it lays the groundwork for all future math learning. Children with strong number sense can think flexibly and make reasonable estimates, both of which are critical skills for problem-solving.

Creative Strategies for Counting

Creative Strategies for Counting
  1. Counting Songs and Rhymes

Strategy: Integrate counting songs and rhymes into daily routines. Songs like “Five Little Monkeys” or “Ten in the Bed” make counting fun and engaging.


  • Helps with memory and recall
  • Engages auditory and musical learners
  • Reinforces number sequences
  1. Number Lines

Strategy: Create a large number line on the floor using tape. Children can jump along the line to count forward and backward, helping them visualize number order.


  • Builds physical coordination
  • Provides a visual representation of numbers
  • Enhances understanding of number sequences
  1. Counting Collections

Strategy: Provide children with collections of small objects (e.g., buttons, coins, beads). Have them count and sort these objects into groups.


  • Encourages sorting and categorizing skills
  • Develops one-to-one correspondence
  • Makes counting tangible and hands-on
  1. Interactive Counting Games

Strategy: Use online games and apps designed for counting practice. Websites like ABCmouse and Starfall offer interactive counting activities.


  • Provides immediate feedback
  • Engages digital learners
  • Can be customized to individual learning levels
  1. Counting Books

Strategy: Incorporate counting books into reading time. Books like “Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3” and “Ten Black Dots” use engaging stories to teach counting.


  • Combines literacy and math skills
  • Makes counting enjoyable
  • Engages visual and auditory learners

Creative Strategies for Operations

  1. Manipulatives

Strategy: Use manipulatives such as blocks, counters, and beads to illustrate addition and subtraction problems. Children can physically move objects to see the results of operations.


  • Provides a concrete understanding of abstract concepts
  • Supports visual and kinesthetic learners
  • Encourages hands-on learning
  1. Math Centers

Strategy: Set up math centers in the classroom with different activities focusing on operations. Examples include puzzle games, matching games, and flashcards.


  • Promotes independent and group learning
  • Keeps students engaged with a variety of activities
  • Allows for differentiated instruction
  1. Story Problems

Strategy: Create story problems that relate to children’s everyday experiences. For example, “If you have three apples and pick two more, how many apples do you have?”


  • Connects math to real-life situations
  • Encourages verbal and written expression
  • Enhances critical thinking skills
  1. Math Journals

Strategy: Have students keep math journals where they write about their problem-solving processes and illustrate their work.


  • Encourages reflection and metacognition
  • Helps teachers assess understanding
  • Supports writing and drawing skills
  1. Interactive Whiteboards

Strategy: Use interactive whiteboards to demonstrate addition and subtraction. Digital tools like virtual manipulatives and number lines can be used to show operations dynamically.


  • Allows for interactive and collaborative learning
  • Makes abstract concepts more accessible
  • Engages visual and digital learners

Combining Counting and Operations

  1. Counting On and Counting Back

Strategy: Teach students to “count on” for addition and “count back” for subtraction. For example, to solve 5 + 3, start at 5 and count up three more numbers.


  • Reinforces number sequences
  • Builds mental math skills
  • Encourages flexible thinking
  1. Ten Frames

Strategy: Use ten frames to help students visualize numbers and operations. Ten frames are grids with ten spaces where students can place counters to represent numbers.


  • Enhances understanding of number relationships
  • Provides a visual aid for addition and subtraction
  • Supports the concept of base ten
  1. Number Bonds

Strategy: Teach number bonds to show how numbers can be broken down into parts. For example, the number 8 can be made from 5 + 3, 6 + 2, etc.


  • Develops a deeper understanding of number relationships
  • Supports the concept of part-whole thinking
  • Helps with mental math and fluency
  1. Skip Counting

Strategy: Practice skip counting (e.g., by 2s, 5s, 10s) to prepare for multiplication and division. Use songs, number lines, and visual aids to reinforce this skill.


  • Lays the foundation for multiplication
  • Enhances number sense and fluency
  • Makes counting more dynamic and fun
  1. Dice and Card Games

Strategy: Incorporate dice and card games that involve counting and operations. Games like “War” with cards or “Roll and Add” with dice can make practice enjoyable.


  • Makes learning feel like play
  • Encourages strategic thinking
  • Provides opportunities for social interaction

Building Number Sense through Daily Routines

  1. Calendar Activities

Strategy: Use a daily calendar activity to practice counting, pattern recognition, and simple addition/subtraction. Discuss the date, count days, and look for patterns in the calendar.


  • Reinforces daily counting practice
  • Connects math to everyday routines
  • Enhances pattern recognition skills
  1. Math Talks

Strategy: Engage students in short, daily math talks where they discuss numbers and operations. Ask open-ended questions like, “What are some ways to make 10?” or “How many ways can we divide these 12 blocks?”


  • Encourages mathematical thinking and communication
  • Provides opportunities for peer learning
  • Builds confidence in explaining math concepts
  1. Shopping and Money

Strategy: Incorporate pretend shopping activities where students use play money to buy items. Practice counting money, making change, and understanding the value of coins and bills.


  • Connects math to real-life scenarios
  • Develops counting and addition/subtraction skills
  • Teaches financial literacy basics
  1. Cooking and Measuring

Strategy: Use cooking activities to teach measurement and fractions. Have students measure ingredients, double recipes, and understand fractions in a practical context.


  • Provides hands-on learning experiences
  • Connects math to everyday activities
  • Enhances understanding of measurement and fractions
  1. Outdoor Math

Strategy: Take math learning outdoors with activities like counting steps, measuring distances, and collecting and graphing natural items (e.g., leaves, rocks).


  • Makes learning dynamic and engaging
  • Connects math to the natural world
  • Encourages physical activity and exploration

Encouraging a Positive Attitude towards Math

  1. Celebrate Mistakes

Strategy: Create a classroom culture where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. Celebrate efforts and discuss how mistakes help us grow.


  • Builds resilience and a growth mindset
  • Reduces math anxiety
  • Encourages a love of learning
  1. Math Celebrations

Strategy: Have regular math celebrations where students share their favorite math activities, projects, and achievements. Use this time to play math games and enjoy math-related treats.


  • Reinforces the idea that math is fun
  • Builds a positive community around math
  • Encourages sharing and collaboration
  1. Math Literature

Strategy: Incorporate books that feature math concepts and stories. Books like “The Grapes of Math” and “Math Curse” can make math come alive through storytelling.


  • Combines literacy and math learning
  • Engages students with creative and humorous stories
  • Provides diverse perspectives on math
  1. Math Art

Strategy: Integrate math and art by creating projects that involve patterns, shapes, and symmetry. Projects like tessellations, number collages, and symmetry drawings can be both educational and artistic.


  • Connects math to creative expression
  • Engages visual and artistic learners
  • Enhances understanding of geometric concepts
  1. Family Involvement

Strategy: Encourage family involvement in math learning. Send home math games, puzzles, and activities that families can do together.


  • Strengthens home-school connections
  • Provides additional practice in a supportive environment
  • Encourages family bonding through learning

Building number sense in young learners is an essential step in their mathematical journey. We have explained the strategies for counting and operations above.

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