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Subitising: what is it, and why is it important?

When you’re playing a game with dice, do you count the dots to know what number you’ve rolled? It’s quite likely that you don’t have to, but instead, are able to recognise the number instantly. This ability is called ‘subitising’!

Below, we explain in more detail what subitising is, why it’s important, and how you can help your child develop this ability at home.


What is subitising?

Subitising is a term that was introduced by the Swiss psychologist Piaget. It’s the ability to look at a small number of objects and instantly recognise how many objects there are without needing to count.

In early years, children look at tally marks, how many fingers are being held up or the dots on dice to help develop this skill.

To make things a little more confusing, there are actually two types of subitising: perceptual and conceptual.

Our brains can only easily subitise numbers up to five — this is called perceptual subitising.

Anything above five is called conceptual subitising. This is because the numbers start to relate to a larger quantity of things and identifying ‘how many’ without counting becomes more difficult.

For example, to subitise six, we’d need to subitise three and three; four and two; or five and one. Only then could we combine the number pairs together to arrive at an answer of six.


Why is subitising important?

Subitising is important for children’s mathematical development for many reasons:

  1. It helps children to understand what numbers mean or how many ‘things’ a number refers to.
  2. It helps learners with pattern recognition.
  3. It helps children to not over-rely on counting.

Subitising is an alternative maths strategy that is more efficient when dealing with smaller numbers. It helps children to see how numbers are made up.

For example, you can make the number eight using many pairs: 1 + 7, 2 + 6, 3 + 5 and 4 + 4. By separating and combining numbers through subitising, children lay the foundations for addition and subtraction.

Children also learn an important mathematical law through subitising: it doesn’t matter in what order you add numbers together, as you always get the same answer! For example, 2 + 3 = 5 and 3 + 2 = 5.


How can I help my child with subitising at home?

You don’t need to spend lots of money or use a big bank of resources to help your child with subitising. Here are a few activity ideas:

Use your hands

You can use your hands to visualise numbers. For example, five can be represented by five fingers on one hand, or three fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other.

Fantastic flashcards

Make some flashcards that show dot patterns, tally marks and fingers being held up (if you are feeling creative!). Can your child tell you how many there are without counting?

To make this harder, show them a flashcard for only a few seconds and then hide it! This encourages them to subitise rather than count.

Colourful counters

Throw a small number of counters in two different colours on a table and ask your child to say what they see.

For example, “I see three red counters and two yellow counters. There are five counters altogether”. You don’t have to use counters either — there are plenty of alternatives that would suffice!

Mathematical board games

You can put all of the above tips into action while playing board games. Why not check out these mathematical board games to get started!

Learn subitising with DoodleMaths

For even more mathematical fun, DoodleMaths has thousands of engaging exercises and educational games specifically designed to develop subitising skills.

Download the app today to give it a go for yourself!

Or discover Doodle for schools

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