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Subitizing | What is it? & Why teach it?

Do you remember a situation when you guessed the number of objects in a group at a glance? Well, human brains are great at visualization. A study conducted by a team of neuroscientists from MIT reveals that the human brain can process an image, that the eyes see, in as little as 13 milliseconds.

Subitizing is a visualization skill that varies from person to person. Basically, when we see an image, we divide its contents into patterns to make sense. The dots you see in the above picture may be different in patterns than any other person who sees them. A person on average can process 6 dots at a time. Given a larger set of objects, our brain divides them into smaller sets for faster processing.

Let’s uncover subitizing in detail and explore the activities that can be done by children.

What is Subitizing?

The ability of the brain to recognize the exact count of objects in a group without actual counting is called Subitizing. So, you subitize when you know exactly the number of items in a group just by looking at it, not by counting them individually. For example, when you roll a die, you quickly recognize the number on the face of the dice by looking at the pattern.

The term was introduced in a journal article released in 1949, by a research team led by E.L. Kaufman.

Subitizing which includes small sets of items is categorized as perceptual subitizing. They are beginners friendly and build early foundations for conceptual subitizing. Students who are adept at perceptual subitizing can instantly identify the number of items in a small set, usually up to 4 or 5.

After conquering perceptual subitizing a student advances to the next stage, called conceptual subitizing which includes a larger set of numbers.

Why Subitizing is Important for young children?

Various studies have proven that babies are born with a primitive number sense which is also an indicator of future math skills.

Subitizing is a healthy practice for making your brain stronger in quickly perceiving things you see. Since subitizing involves extensive visualization skills, henceforth, a person practicing subitizing actually increases the brain power and functioning to perceive things more quickly than others.

In the early 1900s, many studies were conducted by scholars, who concluded that subitizing is a more efficient practice than counting, especially in younger children. Making children learn subitize, develops their flexibility with numbers. This helps them to decode the composition of numbers and helps them become more efficient with mental math. Now, nearly every early childhood education incorporates subitizing as a method to enhance their mathematical ability after they have learned normal counting.

Starting early proves beneficial, as younger children are more imaginative and creative which is also linked to their problem-solving skills.

Things to keep in mind while teaching subitizing

To make an ultimate learning environment some things should be kept in mind while teaching:

  • Instead of "count," use "say the number": Avoid using the word "count" when asking children to subitize because it is deceptive. For example, instead of saying "Count the number of dots on the card," say "Say the number of dots on the card." It's straightforward, but language is important.

  • Begin small: Concentrate on small amounts first, such as one, two, and three. Then include larger numbers. Encourage students to first break larger numbers into smaller groups and then quickly add them.

  • Make use of a variety of symbols and options, like dots, but other symbols, images, and even objects can be used as well.

Subitizing Activities for Infants and Toddlers

Babies have a unique ability to perceive quantities in a manner that few adults can. If you show a baby a card with 59 dots on it, he will know that there are 59 dots on the card without having to count the dots. For most adults to know that there are 59 dots on the card, they would have to physically count the dots. Children lose this ability as they get older unless you help your child to develop the ability.

For most individuals, the limit to subitizing is about 7. Beyond that, we’re usually making a guess at the quantity. All babies have the ability to subitize any quantity but the ability is lost by the time they turn 3.

Math Dot Cards are a great way to stimulate the child’s number sense without putting any pressure on them to respond. Just a few seconds of flashing every day goes a long way in improving their math skills.

Subitizing Activities for Preschoolers and Kindergarteners

Students practice subitizing by working with number sets such as groups of objects, fingers, and so on. The key is to practice with number sets over and over again. The practice should be brief but consistent until students quickly recognize the quantity.

Refer to this video for a sample of one such activity-

The following activities for subitizing:

Eraser Activity

Do you have mini erasers in your classroom? Print out blank 10 frames and distribute them to students along with a stack of erasers. Display dot flashcards and ask your students to count the number of erasers by placing them in the frame.

Subitizing with Pop its

These fidget toys are extremely popular, and they are ideal for subitizing activities in the classroom!

Provide students with pop-its and dice during the math gathering. Students roll the dice and then "pop" the appropriate number of buttons.

You can also give them numeral cards and have them push the corresponding number of bubbles.

Power of PowerPoint Subitizing

Display a PowerPoint presentation on the whiteboard that shows your students images that they can quickly count! Images appear briefly on the screen, and students have only a few seconds to determine the number of images.

That is a fantastic way to practice subitizing as a class — students write the number on their individual whiteboards. When the teacher says "show me," all of the students flip their boards to show the teacher.

Flash Cards Subitizing

Like PowerPoint subitizing, you can print cards with specific patterns and then display them to students. Display them only for a few seconds and force students to work quickly to find the right answers.

Fill and drop grab bags

Fill small toys or mini erasers into the bags. Kids take a handful of items and place them on the desk, then try to estimate how many there are without counting them one by one. For extra practice, have them add or subtract their draws from a variety of bags.


Subitizing involves visualization skills, where a given set of objects are divided into different patterns. Children are much better at visualization than adults, but still, they need a little practice in making patterns when working with a larger set of objects. Starting small and then moving to larger groups of objects is recommended. Furthermore, practice is the key to mastering anything worth achievable, keep practicing and learning! Contact us to know more about our right brain program.

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