I watched him study his teddy grahams. My 4-year-old was enjoying his snack, and had split his teddy grahams in two piles. “Mommy, I have 4 here and 5 here. How many do I have?”
We have been working on counting for a long time and he’s doing great. Now, he’s naturally trying to figure out how many he has if he combines two groups of objects.
As a former kindergarten teacher, I know we have to be careful about jumping ahead before he’s ready. Having a strong foundation of number sense is essential as he learns new math skills.
We also don’t want to introduce him to skills that he’s not ready for. Trying to push kids to learn skills before they are ready could create frustration to the point of hating learning. Some children might not be developmentally ready to learn it, and it could even plant a lifelong belief that they are not capable of learning.
At this age, and really at any age, one of the most important goals is that kids are learning through play, and having fun. It is great to challenge them if they are ready for some more rigorous thinking. We have to challenge them carefully, being intentional to protect the wonder and excitement of learning new things.
What Age Should Addition and Subtracton Be Introduced?
Addition is a kindergarten standard, and typically is introduced in the spring of your child’s kindergarten year. If your child has a strong foundation of counting, number sense, and more/less, you can introduce addition by age 4-5.
The ability to add is not a requirement at the beginning of kindergarten, so if your child is in preschool, don’t put too much pressure on your child (or yourself) to learn to add. It’s more important to have a solid foundation before moving on.
What Preschoolers Should Know Before Starting To Learn Addition
There are many foundational skills preschoolers should be confident in before learning addition.
- Use “junk tubs” which are tiny containers filled with miscellaneous items. Have your child take a handful and count them, sort them, and make a pattern. Put it back and take a new handful. The next day, do the same activity but with a different item. At this age, new items to count are basically a whole new activity.
- To make your own junk tubs, just collect items around your house that you could put into small containers. Your goal, in the beginning is that their small handful would be less than 20 items. (If you think it will be more than 20, just put 20 items in each tub to start with.)
- Some ideas are:
- different types of macaroni
- keys (You know, the ones that you have no idea what they go to anymore)
- gift cards (which are surprisingly good for sorting)
- a bag of rocks from the dollar store
- circle caps from applesauce pouches
- plastic animals
- dyed beans
- dyed pumpkin seeds
- Some ideas are:
- Count Throughout Your Day
- Count the number of your child’s steps from their room to the kitchen, as you go down the stairs, to the car, etc.
- Ask your child to count how many socks came out of the dryer as they are helping with laundry.
- Have your child count how many of a certain toy they have. (Aim to keep the number less than 20.)
- One-to-One Counting
- When a child is first learning to count objects, I always teach them to move each item as they count it instead of just point and count. If they move the item and make a new group, it is easy to tell which items have already been counted and avoid counting the same item twice. One-to-one counting is only saying one number as they move one item. The alternative is counting at a different pace than they are moving items. For example, move one bean while saying “one,” move the second bean while saying “two,” move the third bean while saying “three,” instead of move one bean while saying “one, two, three,” move the second bean while saying “four, five, six,” etc.
- This is understanding the last number you say when you are counting is how many items you have in your set. Sometimes when young children are counting, they think they are “naming” each item. After they are finished counting if you ask them how many they have, they look at you with a confused look on their face as if to say “How should I know?” They think they have given the last item they counted the name of “six” instead of understanding the have a group of six. To practice this, when your child is finished counting a group, simply ask them “How many are here?” When I ask that question, I usually touch the whole group of items the child has just counted so they know I am asking about the entire group.
- Number Recognition (0-10)
- My son first started getting interested when I was cooking and would let him press the numbers on the microwave. I would tell him “Press the 5.” He was excited when he started learning what numbers to press when I asked him to. The idea with this is to sneak numbers in whenever an opportunity arises. When we are in an elevator, I tell him what number to press and give him a minute to figure it out. Our van has a large digital clock that he can see from his car seat, so we talk about numbers when we are in the van. We talk about clocks, the numbers on remotes, the numbers on our mailbox. Anywhere you see numbers, point them out and have your child tell you what number they see.
- We love to play with magnetic numbers on the fridge, foam numbers in the bath, and a puzzles with numbers.
- Once your child can recognize numbers, have them grab a pile of items from your junk tub, count, and match a number. For instance, if they have a pile of 6 things, they match it with the number 6. Use pre-made numbers at first. This could be numbers you have written on a post-it or index card, or magnetic numbers, foam bathtub numbers, numbers from a puzzle, etc.
- Greater Than, Less Than
- The terms “greater than” and “less than” can be confusing…. until you introduce the concept using cookies (or something your child loves) as an illustration. It isn’t necessary to introduce the symbols yet. “There are two piles of cookies, but we have to pick one! Which one do you think he wants? This pile has 10 cookies but my second pile only has one cookie.” Of course, the child will pick the pile with more. Discuss the terms more and less.
- Use these terms during play. Do you have more red or blue blocks? Do you have more socks or shoes? What about trucks or cars?
- One More, One Less
- After your child has mastered counting, you can introduce the idea of “one more” and “one less.” When they have finished counting a group of objects, add one to their pile and ask “How many do you have now?” Often, they will have to recount the entire group. This is ok. Keep working on it until they do not have to count the entire group.
- Next, repeat the same activity but instead of physically adding an object to their pile, just ask them “What is one more?” “What is one less?”
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How Do You Explain Addition to a Preschooler?
Use concrete objects (like items from the junk tubs above), make two piles. Move each object to a new (combined) pile while counting. At the end ask your child “How many do you have when you put both groups together?”
Start with numbers that will add up to less than 5. Once your child understands the concept of addition, you can go up to 10.
Don’t worry about writing (or reading) equations when first starting out.
Activities That Teach Addition To Preschoolers
Addition is a big topic to begin teaching your preschooler, but if your child has a solid foundation learning addition will come easily. Start with concrete objects. The more children are able to touch and manipulate toys, the easier it will be for them to learn what they actually are doing by adding.
- Start with having the child complete sets with numbers up to 5. For example, if you have 3 counters, but want 5 how many more do you need? This can also be explained as “counting on.” In the beginning, always have your child physically do this.
- After your child is comfortable with making numbers to 5, have them make numbers to 10.
- Next, you can start working on addition to 5. Don’t worry about introducing the symbols yet. You can either verbally tell them what to add, or they can roll a dice. If you choose to roll a dice, use tape or stickers to cover up the 4, 5, and 6, and draw 1, 2, or 3 dots over them.
When teaching addition to preschoolers, be sure to spend a lot of time on each step before moving on to the next step. At this age, kids very rarely get bored with these activities. Having them do the same activity with different manipulatives feels like a whole new activity.
Even after you think they understand what they are doing, have them keep practicing. It’s important that they have a solid foundation before moving on to the next thing. These basic skills they are learning will be the basis of their math learning for their entire lives.
Take two dice, and cover the numbers 4, 5, and 6 with stickers. On those stickers draw 1, 2, and 3 dots. Have your child roll both dice. Get physical objects to represent the numbers rolled. If you rolled a 2 and 3, make a pile with 2 objects, and 3 objects.
Count all objects, moving each item to a new (combined) pile as you count. How many do you have altogether?
Any game that uses dice is great practice for subitizing, which is important for more advanced math skills.
Flash Card Addition
Similar to the game above, use flash cards instead of dice. Make a deck of cards with 1, 2, and 3’s. Use a combination of written numbers and dots. Represent the numbers different ways. Write the number 2 on one card, draw 2 flowers, and draw 2 dots. Draw two cards, and make piles of physical objects to represent the numbers rolled. If you rolled a 2 and 1, make a pile with 2 objects, and 1 objects.
Count all objects, moving each item to a new (combined) pile as you count. How many do you have altogether?
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This is a fun way to practice beginning addition skills. You race through the swamp, while meeting fun swamp creatures. You will still want to use physical objects when solving addition problems.
Spin the spinner and keep the gumballs for correct answers. You will still want to use physical objects to solve addition and subtraction problems.
One of my favorite ways to practice addition is to add a deck of cards to any board game. Make your own deck of cards, and instead of writing 2+3 on the card, make a group of 2 triangles on the top, and a group of 3 triangles on the bottom. (Make cards for all different combinations up to 5).
When playing your favorite board game, everyone has to draw an addition card before their turn. When your child draws a card, they can count the groups to find out how many altogether. You may even need your child to check your answers to make sure you are adding correctly!
Monster Under the Bed
This game is very popular with kindergarteners! Using an egg carton, cut the lid in half but leave both halves attached. Tape one half down so it can’t be opened. Put 5 buttons or pom-poms in the egg carton and close the whole lid. Shake. Open the lid. If you only see 2 pom-poms, how many are under “the bed?”
This game helps with number combinations. Start with 5, and once your child gets really comfortable with those, increase the number by 1.
When teaching addition, don’t use the terms “plus” or “equals.” State the equation as “three and two is the same as five.” Eventually you will use those terms but when you are starting out, replacing the word “plus” with “and” better communicates the physical act of what you are doing.
Saying “is the same as” instead of “equals” helps set up the child for future math problems. In school, children are starting to see algebraic problems earlier and earlier. They need to see a math equation more as a balance scale with both sides balancing out. The middle would be an equal sign.
Take Away the Pressure
Kids will not be required to know addition when entering kindergarten. Knowing addition but not having a good foundation will hurt them in the long run. Wait until your child has a strong foundation and is curious enough about numbers to be excited and engaged to learn! Keep it fun and enjoy time playing games together, or simply adding your teddy grahams.
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What are your favorite activities for teaching addition?