Subitising fun with Compare Bears

My granddaughter Daisy has played with my set of Compare Bears on several occasions. 

By virtue of their varying sizes and colours, Compare Bears allow young children to explore and learn about counting, sorting, patterning, and size and mass comparison in a fun, relaxed way.

Now they’re supporting Daisy in an important new skill: subitising.

A child plays with a line of compare bears, sorting them into yellow and red groups
Daisy loves to sort through her set of Compare Bears

Initially, I would put out the Compare Bears so that Daisy could pick out a particular colour of bear. She frequently enjoyed sorting the bears into groups based on colour and size; they were an interesting novelty for her. Now that she’s approaching five years old, the way in which she plays with these bears has definitely evolved. 

Last weekend, Daisy was happily sitting with me, playing with the Compare Bears again. It was fascinating to watch how Daisy’s memories of her nursery school influenced her imaginative play – she set out groups of Compare Bears with the smallest bears grouped in orderly sets, facing the larger bears, a setup that recalled the daily ritual of ‘carpet time’ in the nursery, during which the children faced the teacher and the classroom assistant for a story!

Given that Daisy was enjoying playing with the Compare Bears, I thought that this was also an opportunity to practise some subitising with her for the first time.

Don’t count – see the amount!

Subitising is a key element of the Early Years Mathematics number development. It means that a child has the ability to look at a small number of objects (up to five of them) and is able to recognise how many items there are without the need to count each of those objects. 

Put more simply, a child follows the advice of the characters in Numberblocks: don’t count – see the amount’.

Subitising is a visual skill, and one which adults employ routinely and instinctively. When we look at a die or dice, we know instantly what the number is on the upward face; when we pick up a transparent pack of bread rolls, we can see how many rolls are inside; when we use loose change to make a small payment, we can see how much money we have without having to count.

The ability to subitise continues to develop in school and is a valuable skill for counting and subtracting. Earlier in the year, Daisy and I explored the concepts of odds and evens and number bonds through play sessions. 

Storytime also presents an opportunity for subitising. A single spread from One Ted Falls Out Of Bed: A Counting Story (written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Anna Currey) provides a great example.

A spread from the children's book for One Ted Falls Out Of Bed (written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Anna Currey)
Storytime subitising: How many balloons are next to the rocking horse’s head? How many mice can you see by the bed? Don’t count – see the amount!

Say what you see

Back to our recent play session. As Daisy sat with me and played with Compare Bears, I started to hide a small group of bears under my hands, revealing them and asking Daisy to “say what you see”. 

I continued to hide and reveal various groupings of bears: two large ones and two small ones together, four small ones of several different colours, a large bear and two small bears – endless combinations of 1-5 bears were possible – and just a few moments of ‘say what you see’ were required before her imaginative play took over again. 

Daisy is good at subitising up to four objects, and with more practise she will quickly extend that skill to be able to subitise groups of five. 

A few days later, Daisy spotted some of my buttons in a dish on my craft table. She decided to investigate the different buttons and to then sort some of them into groups. And then she was subitising again, this time with her Daddy! 

Granny Smith says…

Creating activities where young children enjoy the physical manipulation of toys and items, will add greater relevance to their subitising efforts. In the instances I’ve described, Daisy played with miniature bears and buttons, but they could just as easily be replaced with building bricks or counting pebbles or stones. The main thing is to keep it fun and relaxed!


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