Making Sense of Number Sense
Dr. David Elkind
Early Childhood Expert and Educational
Advisor for MarcoPolo Learning

Did you know that a child’s ability to understand numbers and do arithmetic develops in three stages? These are related to age and mental development.

Stage 1: Nominal Number

By age two, most children can recognize nominal numbers. This means they know a number is a number, and might remember the jersey number of their favorite soccer player.
They also understand the concepts of bigger and smaller, more and less, and are very concerned about ‘who has more’.

Nominal Number
Stage 2: Matching Number

Around the age of three to four, most children are able to count. They have also grasped paired numbers. This means they can match six pennies in a row with another six they take from a pile. However, they aren’t able to understand the concept of units yet.

Try showing your little student two identical rows of pennies. They will recognize that both rows have the same number of pennies. Now, spread one row of pennies further apart. Your child will say that the wider row has more pennies, even if they count the pennies in both rows!

Matching Number
Stage 3: Unit Number

By the age of five or six, most children understand units. When shown the two rows of pennies with one set spread apart, they will say that the two are the same because no pennies were added or taken away. At this age children have the mental ability to overcome the perceptual difference between the two rows by reasoning that numbers apply to units, not to visual differences.

With the unit concept children can now understand various forms of measurement like inches of height and pounds of weight. The unit concept also enables children to engage in arithmetic operations, such as addition and subtraction.

Matching Number

Now that they have grasped units, kids can apply this to real-world situations, such as understanding which marine animals are heavier.

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