How to Use Games to Build Subitizing Skills

Looking for fun ways to practice subitizing with your students? Try using games!

I love playing games – both with my family and in my classroom! Games are engaging, but they also help build math skills: number sense, subitizing, problem solving, critical thinking, and so much more. So I sneak learning games into my math instruction whenever I can. Math games can do so much to boost subitizing and number sense skills in kindergarten and preschool. That’s why I’m going to share 4 awesome subitizing games you can use at school or at home with young learners.

But first, what is subitizing?

Subitizing is the rapid recognition of groups of items, without counting. When you roll a die, you don’t have to count how many dots there are – you just know that dot arrangement is 4. That’s subitizing (technically, perceptual subitizing.)

How does this help with math?

Subitizing is more efficient than counting each item – it saves time in math tasks. Students who can subitize have a better understanding of the numbers and what they represent; they recognize the numeral 4, have a concept of its quanitity, and can use that concept to help the order and compare small quantities/numbers. Additionally, subitizing is the foundation for future mathematical skills:

  • counting on/back from a given number
  • combining sets of larger numbers
  • decomposing larger sets of items
  • applying these strategies to addition and subtraction

These more advanced skills typically require conceptual subitizing, which means taking a larger number of items and mentally breaking them into smaller groups. For instance, when you see this group of 6 dots, you might see it as 3 and 3 or 5 and 1. The ability to “see” small sets within a large set makes addition and subtraction more efficient and rapid.

White card with 6 black dots to demonstrate subitizing: two on top, two in the center but offset to the right, two on the bottom directly below the top two dots

Now think about your students. We’ve all seen the little dears who still need to count every dot on the die when they roll 3 – even after months of practice. These children have not learned to subitizing small quantities, which will impact all the math skills listed above. Subitizing is foundational to much of math.

How can I help my students subitize?

This is where subitizing games and fun number sense activities come in. The most helpful thing for subitizing is anything that has children quickly look at a set and identify the quantity without counting. Here are some ways to do that:

Flash Dot Pattern Cards: Use cards that have groups of dots on them. (This can be as simple as a paper plate with dot stickers or dots drawn with markers). Quickly show the dot card (for literally a second), then lay it down. Students name the number of dots they think they saw. Then show it again and check. (This can be done with a group of students or with individuals.) As a variation, you can rapidly hold up fingers on your hand, then hide them.

White subitizing flash card with four black dots: two on top and two directly underneath on the bottom.

First focus on quantities of 1-4 (for perceptual subitizing). As students become successful with those, move on to larger sets (for conceptual subitizing). Have students talk about how they “saw” small groups within the larger set.

War Games: Make cards with dot patterns. Each student flips over a card and quickly names the number shown (ideally, without counting). You could even have them show it, hide it, then say the number and check. The child with the greatest quantity keeps both cards (playing like the traditional war game.) As a variation for numbers 1-6, you could have each student roll a die and the child with the larger quantity takes a chip/counter to keep track of points.

As students become more confident in subitizing, you can add in other images, such as ten-frames or tally marks, to continue developing skills. Save yourself time and download this free Ten-Frame War game from my store.

A collection of blue cards spread out across a table. Each card represents a number 0-20 on a ten frame or pair of ten frames while students build subitizing skills.

This Ten-Frame War game is free at my TPT store.

I also have a more complex subitizing war game with dot patterns, finger patterns, ten-frames and tally marks for purchase in my store.

A collection of cards spread out on a flat surface. Each card shows a representation of a number 0-20 with fingers, tally marks, dominoes, or ten-frames. Used to practice subitizing.

Kids love playing this subitizing war game.

Memory/Concentration: Make dot cards with dot patterns and numerals, or two different dot patterns for each number. Lay the cards out in an array. Students turn over two cards and quickly name the number/quantity shown. If they match, they keep the cards, if not, turn them back upside down in the array. 

Find the Card with ___: Students lay out several dot pattern cards on the table in front of them. The teacher says a number and students quickly find a card that represents that number.

Five cards in a line. Each card shows a domino with 1-5 dots to encourage students to use subitizing to identify the quantity.

These cards come from the Domino War game, but can be used flexibly for many subtilizing activities.

A few final tips:

With all of these activities, keep in mind that the purpose is to rapidly identify the quantity, not to count the dots. As students play some of these games with partners, you will want to emphasize that they should say a number first, then count to check.

Once students become familiar with some of these subitizing activities, you can use them as sponge (or filler) activities in your day. They are also a great addition to a soft start to your school day. My students LOVE playing math games, and don’t even realize they are learning as they play!

Finally, remember that perceptual subitizing (small sets) occurs before conceptual subitizing (combining/decomposing larger sets). So stick with sets with 1-4 dots (or finger patterns, ten-frames, etc.) until your students are able to rapidly recognize these sets. Then move on to numbers to 10 and beyond.

A solid understanding of number sense in kindergarten will support mental math in older grades. Have fun helping your students develop stronger number sense!

Pin it to remember these games later!

Hand with four fingers held up with white background. Text reads "4 Games to Build Subtilizing Skills."

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