Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Get a Sense of Your Number Sense with Panamath

Research suggests that students’ achievement in math class may be related to their innate number sense, and it’s no wonder. Number sense, the intuitive recognition of numbers and numerical relationships, is something that animals—including humans!—throughout the world are born with. Panamath, whose name comes in part from the acronym for the Psychological Assessment of Numerical Ability, is an organization hoping to understand the relationship between in-born number sense and math achievement. Through a grant from the National Science foundation, they’re investigating number sense. And if you’re curious about how yours stacks up, their online test is an interesting (and free) resource.

The test is simple enough for even a young child to take: A series of colored dots flashes across the screen and test-takers must decide whether they saw more blue or yellow ones. Both accuracy and decision speed are measured. When the test is over, one can view one’s results compared with other same-age testers. Individuals may wish to take the test out of curiosity, but teachers and clinicians can download it in order to save students’ results. As more is learned about the relationship between number sense and math instruction, gauging a student’s innate skills could be very useful for shaping lessons.

Results not as high as you’d hoped? Never fear! Number sense, like just about every human ability, can be improved. Here are a few ideas for helping kids sharpen their number sense:

Represent Numbers with Different Objects

Pick a number, starting with a small number like five for very young kids. Ask your child to collect different objects and put them in groups that contain that number. (For example, your child might find five rubber bands, five grains of rice, five cotton swabs, etc.) Write the number on a several paper plates and load them with the objects. Point out that groups of ten marbles, ten pieces of puffed rice cereal, ten large crackers, and ten toy cars may take up different amounts of space, but they still contain the same number of objects. Leave the display out for a few days to help your child create an association between the number symbol and the number of items in the group, then try again with a different number.

Comparison Game

Play a guessing game in which you compare groups of different-sized objects with your child. For example, ask your child to cover her eyes and lay out four wooden blocks and seven beads. Then ask your child to look quickly at both groups and point to the one that has more. Next, count the groups to see if she was right. Make the game more challenging by laying out more objects and objects that are closer in size.

Practicing Estimation

There are infinite ways to do this with children. At the grocery store, ask your child to decide which line has the fewest people in it, then count the people in your line and other lines while you wait for the cashier to determine whether your child’s guess was right. Enjoying a treat of candy? Ask kids to guess how many pieces of each color they see or how many pieces there are altogether. Make the estimation games trickier by introducing proportions: Is your child’s little sister half as tall as he is? A third of the height of her father? Measure everyone to see. Is the area of the living room twice the area of your child’s bedroom? More? Less?

Motion Math Games

Evidence suggests that the digital games developed by Motion Math may help kids improve their number sense. The easiest of the games is appropriate for three- or four-year-olds, while other offerings will challenge and entertain kids through early middle school.

How Much is a Million? by David M. Schwartz

This outstanding picture book was made to help children understand large numbers, which can be difficult to conceptualize. No time to get to the library? The book is (of course) available as a charming video  on YouTube.

For even more ideas, investigate the “Number Sense and Place Value” series by NRICH, which contains a wealth of activities for helping very young and elementary-aged children to improve their number sense

This post contains our own ideas as well as inspiration from Panamath ( and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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