Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Are you wondering how you can introduce a child to addition or how you can help your child with addition at home? In this post I’m going to show you how to teach addition to young kids for the first time by covering the specific objectives of teaching addition, the number skills kids need before they learn to add and how to teach addition with hands-on activities.
Kindergarten and preschool kids first learn to add by counting the total of two groups of objects. Kids may begin to do this, without even knowing that they are adding, during play or day-to-day conversations at home especially if you ask the right questions such as “How many do we have altogether?”. Hands-on interactive games and activities are the best way to teach addition to kids at home whereas addition worksheets or memorization will not be as helpful for young kids learning to add.
In this article, I’ll be referring to kids by their age in years rather than their grade or educational stage. If you’re interested in the equivalent grades and stages across curriculums internationally you can check our helpful table here.
How to Teach Addition to Kids
When Can Kids Learn Addition?
You can teach addition to kids at home when they have enough basic number skills to be able to understand adding, which is usually by around age 3-6 years old. Remember that all children develop at different rates and so there isn’t a ‘right time’ that works for all kids.
What age should a child learn addition?
Kids are learning counting principles and developing number sense from birth but most of the time they are ready to actually start doing simple addition roughly around age four. This is in no way the same for all children as it always depends on the individual child and what sort of understanding they already have of numbers.
Instead of judging whether kids are ready to start learning to add by their age, parents would be much better off observing how their child works and plays with numbers naturally and whether they have the required understanding to begin learning addition.
The last thing you want is to push kids to add too early on when they aren’t ready to grasp the concept because this will be discouraging and unpleasant for everyone involved and will probably be more confusing than helpful for kids. Sooner isn't always better!
Can 4-year-olds add numbers?
The kids in my class are aged four to five years old and their addition abilities range from some who aren’t really adding at all yet, all the way to kids who are adding numbers to twenty with confidence and even using different methods to check their answers.
This is totally normal, completely to be expected, and is just because all children develop differently and not because any of them are ‘behind’ or ‘ahead’ - all of them will eventually learn to add.
Skills needed for addition
So, if you want to know whether your child is ready to learn how to add, you’ll need to watch out for some specific signs. These signs are most valuable and reliable if you spot them while kids are engaged in play or in a natural, informal discussion rather than in any kind of test or quiz.
Because of this, you won’t be able to know within the hour whether your child is ready to add numbers. Instead, it might take a few days or weeks of careful but casual observation to give you a chance to notice some of the following traits of a child who is ready to learn to add.
Reciting numbers reliably to ten or beyond
Counting up to ten objects more or less accurately
Showing an interest in numbers in general
Matching numeral and quantity
Representing a given quantity with objects, fingers & marks
Separating objects into two groups
Counting how many objects are in a group
Sorting objects into groups using different criteria (Size, type, colour etc.)
Counting a given number of objects out from an existing group
Counting the total of two groups
If your child has not been introduced to addition yet and you feel as if time is running out - don’t worry. There is no harm in introducing them to adding a little later - in fact, kids will have had more chance to fully develop their number sense which will benefit their maths in the long run and you might even see them begin to add naturally anyway.
How do you Introduce a Child to Addition?
Kids can be taught how to add in different ways including:
Using movable objects
Using their fingers
Using marks they make
Using a number line
The first three of these are similar to one another - kids make two groups which represent the two numbers that they want to add and then they come up with the total of the two groups by counting them all together. (Once this is mastered kids can then begin to learn to find the total using their number bond knowledge or by counting on instead of counting each object.)
Addition for Kids
Here are some different methods of addition for kids that you can teach and practise with your kids at home.
How to Teach Kids to Add with their Fingers
Teach your child to lift up the right number of fingers to represent the two numbers they want to add and then count each raised finger to find the total. You should start by adding numbers up to five so that kids can easily use one hand for each of the two numbers that they are adding. This will avoid confusion and keep the activity as simple as possible for kids first attempts.
Teach Kids to Add with Movable Objects
Teach your child how to make two groups of objects, count how many are in each group and then count how many objects they have altogether when the two groups are put together.
The objects could be actual kids maths manipulatives like counters or counting camels/teddies or they could be anything small and easy to move and count like pom poms, beads, buttons etc. You can also teach kids to add with movable objects in day to day life - for example with fruits or food - maybe pieces of popcorn or dry pasta.
Kids could use stuffed toys or shoes or books to help them add - anything and everything that they can move and count! The more fun and informal the better and if you can work it into a play situation then kids will learn even more!
Let’s say you’re doing pretend cooking with your kids - you could be sharing out the pretend food onto plates for pretend dinner time and then you could count how many of something the two of you have on your plates altogether.
Remember: Kids learn best through play - you can read my ideas on how you can use play-based learning at home on this post.
Teach Kids to Add with Marks That They Make
Teach kids to draw two groups of marks - these could be dashes, circles, dots, smiley faces, anything simple and quick to draw - and then count how many marks they have altogether. This method is easy to do on paper with pencils or even something fun like earbuds with paint or stamps but also digitally. Using any kind of whiteboard app or even just the pen on a blank PowerPoint presentation kids can make their own groups of marks and count them on a computer or a tablet.
If they like doing this and they get the hang of it, kids could then start to practise writing the corresponding sum or 'number sentence' underneath their marks. For example, the number sentence for the marks above would be '3 + 4 = 7'.
How to Add on a Number Line
Teach your child to find the first number in the sum on the number line and then do the same number of jumps (only jumping to the next-door number each time) as they are adding on. So if they are adding three, they would use their finger to do three jumps or draw three jumps with an arc from one number to the next.
An even better idea would be to make your own digital number lines online that you and your kids can use to do addition at home!
Making this example, I realised how easy it is to make a simple number line in PowerPoint. Making a number line can be an activity in itself and then you can use it to teach addition and kids can use it to practise. For step by step instructions on how you or your kids can make a simple number line at home click here.
If your child is using their fingers to help them with their adding, then you shouldn’t discourage this because this is not necessarily a bad thing at all. You shouldn't teach children not to add using their fingers because it is an important method of addition, especially for young children.
Introducing your child to different ways of doing addition is really important though too so if you want to teach them another way to add you can emphasise the fact that there are lots of other ways to add as well as using their fingers.
Kids should be able to use objects, their own fingers, number lines, marks that they have made as well as - later on - memorised number facts to help them to add successfully. It’s also good to encourage kids to use one method to do a sum and then use another one to check it.
Find out what number bonds and number facts are and when kids should start to learn them on this post.
Addition Activities for Kindergarten at Home
Hands-on addition activities are what we want to try to use most of the time when introducing addition at home and practising addition skills with preschoolers and kindergarteners. Kids should be learning through play and hands-on interactive activities both online and offline for the best addition practise.
Addition worksheets can be OK to use sometimes for checking how well kids have understood things but they aren’t good for teaching kids how to add (or anything new, really). Digital worksheets would at least be better because at least then kids are developing some digital skills as well as checking if they can use their new addition skills.
Also, keep in mind that some kids might learn to add numbers before they learn to write numbers. For kids who aren’t writing confidently yet, the best way to teach addition at home is with hands-on activities.
Addition Lessons at Home
You might be tempted to try to do a proper sit-down addition lesson with your child at home if you haven’t seen them doing sums yet. Addition for kids who are still learning the basics can be taught much more effectively at home through online and offline games, activities and play.
Kids can also learn so much through their social interactions. An addition lesson could actually happen during simple conversations at home if you can spot good opportunities. An addition lesson might happen whilst sharing out or sorting items with your kids at home - it could be the laundry, blueberries, cutlery, absolutely anything. Don't suddenly declare that it's time to do some adding, just be subtle and casually wonder aloud about how many spoons you have all together if you have four small spoons and three big spoons and kids will be intrigued and keen to work it out with you.
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