What is Subitizing in Math?

What on Earth is Subitising?

Oh wait! Is it Subitising or Subitizing? Usually, this type of spelling gets used interchangeably depending on which country you learnt English in.

Australians tend to use an “S” in this type of spelling and USA use “Z”. Take the word organise/organize for example! In this article I will use subitizing, (unless the resource I am linking to spells it the other way!) as this is the most common spelling in the world.

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So what does Subitising mean? Subitizing Definition


is the ability to look at some objects and know how many objects are present without needing to count them. This can be a skill that takes practice.

Check out Math Dictionary For Kids for a colourful definition of subitising. Try out the interactive example to get a great visual idea of what subitising is.

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Dominoes for subitizing

The fascinating thing that I discovered, when I was researching this post, was that young babies have the ability to subitize! Research shows that a baby can hear 3 taps on a drum and then focus on a card that has 3 dots on it picking it out from a few options!

So this is a skill that children can learn from a young age depending on their opportunities and experience. Provide plenty of activities for young children to see objects in their everyday lives.

Activities for subitizing could include collecting rocks and other objects in nature. Getting out the right number of cups for the family at dinner time or seeing the number of teddies on the bed.

A child’s ability to Subitize during kindergarten can be an indicator of their overall maths ability according to the Peabody Research Institute.

So does that mean that you should worry about your child’s maths future if they are struggling to subitize? No, you should not let their current ability determine their future or your expectations of them. The purpose of the research is to investigate questions not to put labels or ceilings on peoples lives.

If your child needs extra help, hang in there! You can help them progress in their learning. I don’t have a degree in teaching, most of what I know about how to learn is a product of my own research to help my child and my patients. What you learn and use with your child can have a huge impact on their success.

Do NOT allow limiting beliefs to hold your child back in their learning! We know that brains have an amazing ability to adapt and make new connections. Children who have a disability can still learn but they may need to learn in different ways to other kids and require more practice.

Teach kids that mistakes are useful!

Jo Boaler has shown that there is no such thing as a math brain and that kids can use a growth mindset, develop and improve their mathematical skills.

My favoutite quote from Jo Boaler is “There is no such thing as a math brain”

It is important for children to use their fingers when learning to subitise numbers as this visual learning uses a different part of the brain than the language centre for counting numbers.

Use your fingers when learning to count

Jo Boaler shows that when calculating numbers in your head the area that controls our fingers also lights up during her research using MRI. This means that our brains are using more than one part to calculate.

If you are like me and love to go deep on a topic then this article by Susanna Wu on subitizing may be up your ally.

Learning to count and subitizing

So as you can see subitizing and counting are different. Counting involves our language centre as words are connected to the objects that we see. I have seen young children try to touch objects with their fingers while they count but they end up saying too many numbers. eg there are two objects and they count one, two, three!

These separate skills can both be strengthened by playing with children and finding fun games and activities to engage in.

The next step after your child has developed subitizing skills is to learn to touch count the objects and then match written numbers to the groups of objects. Learning to identify written numbers and then learning to write them to come after this.

There are plenty of activities that you can use with children to improve their skills. See my list of games and activities below.

One really important thing with Subitizing is arranging items in an array so that it is easier to subitize. Examples of this are the layout of the dots on dice or the pictures in a 10 frame.

Turtle Ten Frames! Enjoy the naturalist design while learning math sense

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Nautical 10 Frames

Bundle – Australian Themed Subitizing Cards and 10 frames

More Bundles of 10 Frame themes coming soon!

Four Seasons Bundle 10 Frames

Why is Subitizing important?

Subitizing is an extremely important skill because it uses visual reasoning areas of the brain and these skills have been shown to improve overall maths ability.

Teaching kids to count with their fingers is an essential skill to building math sense.

“Students who display a preference for visual thinking are often labelled as having special educational needs in schools, and many young children hide their counting on fingers, as they have been led to believe that finger counting is babyish or just wrong.” Jo Boaler

Subitizing is really easy to practice in everyday life

Think for a minute where you might use subitizing in real life. Do you use it when you get enough plates for everyone out for dinner? Or even when you grab your shoes to put on! I’m sure that you are unlikely to count one, two to make sure that you have the right number of shoes.

My son was playing monopoly once and threw a double 6 straight away he knew that the number was 12. Later that week we were learning some maths and we needed to know the answer for 6 +6. He really struggled with finding the answer with the written sum but it was easy for him when he saw the dots on the dice.

Maths is a visual subject and that does not mean looking at written numbers but seeing numbers in the real world!

Subitizing Activities

Laying out objects in patterns to see and learn the visual patterns.

Subitizing with cards and counters

Using some every day objects like pens or erasers you could practice laying them out in different patterns and shapes and then get your child to guess the number by having a quick look. You could cover the objects with a tea towel or get the child to cover their eyes and say the number when they take their hands away from their eyes and have a quick look.  

A similar game would be to roll a dice and call out the number when it stops rolling. This activity can be extended when the child is ready to read numbers. Roll the dice and then match it to a written number the number cards I have created are useful for this.

Dominoes are also useful for subitizing activities. Get a bag of some sort, a small cloth one would be ideal. Then fill it with dominoes. Take turns pulling the dominoes out of the bag and calling out the numbers that the dots represent.

Another activity that is similar to this is to learn the numbers that add up to ten. Get 10 bricks that stick together like lego bricks. Each person holds the bricks behind their back and breaks a number off eg.4. Then show half of the bricks to the person in front of them who then has to guess how many blocks are still behind their partners back ie 6. This activity is using subitizing skills as the child looks at the number of bricks as well as using other calculating skills.

Subitising Games

Here are some fun games to play for any kids but these will also help those who need to strengthen their subitizing skills.

Knuckle bones

Just in case you like history here is an interecting article on Knucklebones


Mexican Trains


any games that use a dice

Resources for Subitizing

Jack Hartman has created this Fun Subitize Rock song perfect for early learners Click here to check it out.

You may also like to check out my printable counting and subitizing cards on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Counting and Subitizing Cards

Check out these older students describing how they saw the number 7.

There are so many ways to think about maths and there is not just one way to think about mathematical ideas.

Watch Jo Boaler as she guides students through their math thinking click here for video

Hopefully you have some great ideas to go and try with your kids to help strengthen their maths abilities.

If you liked this post you may also enjoy reading my post on fractions.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Naomi (About me)

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