Inside: What is subitising and a list of hands-on subitising activities to help your children develop this important early numeracy skill.
What is the Meaning of Subitising?
Subitising is the ability to instantly recognise a number of things without counting. Young children have powerful visual memories allowing them to remember images, including groups of items and develop subitising skills.
Two Types of Subitising
Perceptual Subitising is when you can instantly recognise a randomly arranged quantity depending on the arrangement the objects are in. Whether it is diagonal on a die, in a horizontal or vertical row or arranged as 2 and 1. This type of subitising develops after lots of repeated exposure.
Children can usually recognise up to 3 images/objects perceptually yet it is possible to recognise more than 3 objects if they are arranged in a familiar way.
Conceptual subitising happens when children begin to recognise a whole quantity by recognising smaller quantities for example seven consists of 1 and 6, 2 and 5 and 3 and 4.
When shown a line of six dots it will become automatic for children to group these into 2 groups of 3 and therefore know that there are 6 dots in total without having to count each dot individually.
The first stages involve linking a visual representation of a number to the number itself, building a connection between the two.
Why is Subitising Important?
Subitising helps children to develop accurate number sense and mental strategies. It allows children to count at speed and to develop an understanding of cardinality (number of elements in a set).
Children as young as two or three can subitise a set of 1, 2, or 3 things. This can then be extended to 4 or 5 things and by the age of four children can subitise to 10 knowing for example 6 is 5+1, 7 is 5+2.
By the time children begin school, subitising will help them to develop mathematical thinking which lays the foundation for understanding addition and subtraction.
Read on for more activities to help your child develop this important early numeracy skill.
Activities to Teach Children Subitising
Activity 1: Subitising Spinner
A spinner is a fun, interactive and repetitive way to begin early subitising. Here are two fun ways to use the spinner:
- Spin and carry out an action for example 5 jumps, 3 hops, 2 spins, 1 shoulder roll, 4 overhead claps etc.
- Or bring the spinner along on your walke. Have your children spot and count different items after each spin such as 3 flowers, 2 doors, 3 insects, 5 cars etc.
Here is a free subitising spinner that you can download.
Place a paper clip underneath the arrow and add a split pin to secure the arrow and paper clip to the circle.
Subitising Activity 2: Race to the Finish
Rolling dice and recognising familiar dot patterns is especially useful when children are learning how to subitise.
- Draw a number of wavy/straight lines onto a piece of paper, one line for each player.
- Write START and FINISH at the start and end of each line.
- Each player takes turns to roll a dice and practises subitising. Then add that number of dot stickers to their line.
- A small toy figure can also be moved along the line.
- Game ends when a player reaches the end of the line.
Not only does this game develop subitising, children are counting dot stickers and learning addition at the same time. Peeling dot stickers is great fine motor skills practise and placing them correctly onto a line supports visual tracking.
Subitising Activity 3: Roll and Circle the Dots
Here’s how to play this simple game:
- Download this Circle the Dots printable.
- Take turns to roll a standard dice and then circle a set of dots making a group that is the same number as shown on the die.
- A different coloured pen will be needed for each player.
- If you can’t make a group with the number on your dice, you miss a turn.
- The winner is the person who has made the most groups at the end of the game.
This activity encourages children to practise subitising with the dice and represent the number shown on the dice in different ways.
Subsisting Activity 4: Haircut Number Game
This is a fun ‘haircut’ activity for your preschoolers to practise subitising with a dice and cutting at the same time.
Subitising Activity 5: Park the Domino Cars
A basic set of dominoes is a great learning resource to practise subitising.
- Draw a grid onto a large sheet of paper and add numbers which match the dominoes.
- Imagine that the set of dominoes are cars. Have your children park the dominoes in the parking space with matching numbers. You can also attach the dominoes to your toy cars.
Subitising Activity 6: Largest Number
- Take a set of dominoes, spread them out and place them with the blank side facing upwards.
- Each player chooses a domino and flips it over at the same time. Using the skills of subitising and mental addition, each player determines the total number of spots on their domino.
- The player with the highest total number keeps all the dominoes for that round.
- The winner is the player with the most dominoes once they have all been played.
Once children recognise common dot patterns as shown on dice/dominos, they are ready to move on to other random dot patterns. Try the following two activities with your child.
Subitising Activity 7: Item Drop
- Drop a large number of small items such as buttons, small pebbles, coins onto a large baking tray. When the items land, they will form into groups.
- Encourage children to talk about what they notice, for example, ‘I can see a group of 3 here, this is a group of 5, I can see 3 and 2.’
- Use a chalk pen to draw around their group of objects.
Subitising Activity 8: Drop in the Slot!
Make your own subitising dot cards using dot stickers and you can play a number of games with them.
- Have all the cards face down at the start of the game.
- Turn over a card and quickly determine the number on the card using subitising.
- Post it into the correct slot of the recycled shoe box.
- You can also use different numbers of coloured dots on the cards.
- Have your child describe what he or she sees on the card before posting into the box. This may sound like: “I can see a group of 3 and a group of 2, so this is 5 dots in total’ or ‘I notice 2 red dots here and 1 blue dot over there. This is 3.’
More subitising activities for preschoolers
This Pizza Math is another fun activity for preschoolers to practise counting and subitising.
For younger toddlers, try this Counting Heart Puzzle activity to help them connect the numerals to the numbers of dots.