5 Sensational Ways to Boost Number Sense

Number sense is a bit of an enigmatic phrase. Everyone has a different idea of what it means, varying from the simple ability to recognize numbers to the more advanced concepts of understanding complex problem solving. Still, despite its ambiguity, there’s no debate that number sense has an important role to play in your classroom.

Developing strong number sense forms the foundation for mathematical understanding and problem-solving skills. The beginning of the school year is a perfect time to set up this foundation, too! Number sense is something that you should develop with your students throughout the entirety of the year. A strong foundation at the beginning of the year sets your kiddos off right to develop those essential skills.

To help you along with that essential foundation, I’ve compiled a list of five unique activities and strategies to help your students strengthen their number sense. By incorporating these ideas into your classroom, you can empower your students to become confident and proficient mathematicians!

To build a strong foundation for math, check out this list of five unique activities and strategies to help your students strengthen their number sense!

What is Number Sense?

Continuing on the theme of developing strong foundations, let’s take a moment to go back to the basics: what is number sense? As I mentioned before, everyone has somewhat of a different definition of the phrase. Ultimately, however, number sense can be boiled down to a simple definition: understanding the relationship between numbers.

In addition, number sense includes skills like counting, place value, number relationships, estimation, mental math, and problem-solving. Since number sense is a foundational skill, consider touching base with colleagues in early elementary grades to see what number sense skills their curriculum expects students to understand by the time they reach your classroom.

Now, we have our end goal: help students comprehend the relationship between numbers. Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies that you can implement in your classroom that allow students to explore number sense and come to understand its importance.

1. Math Games and Puzzles

First things first—everyone loves games, right? I’m sure you already include all kinds of games for various concepts in your classroom, so incorporating math games and puzzles into your classroom routine is an easy win. Games like “War” using playing cards, “Roll and Compare,” or “Math Bingo” provide opportunities for students to practice number sense skills in a fun, friendly way.

Other activities such as puzzles and brain teasers like number grids or Sudoku challenge students’ critical thinking and logical reasoning abilities while strengthening their numerical fluency. These games help students come to see how numbers relate together.

If you’re interested in mixing up your math game activities, check out SplashLearn! SplashLearn is an excellent resource for online number sense games that explore place value, comparison, decimals, and more. Khan Academy is another wonderful tool for math review, too!

2. Math Manipulatives 

In lower elementary, students use manipulatives just about every day in their math lessons. Why should you shy away from these tools in upper elementary? Manipulatives are extremely helpful in boosting number sense through teaching concepts such as multiplication and division.

To teach older kids multiplication, use math manipulatives such as base-ten blocks or colored tiles. First, show students how to create groups or arrays to represent the multiplication problem. For example, demonstrate “5 x 3” by building five groups with three objects in each. Have students manipulate the blocks or tiles and connect the concept of multiplication to repeated addition.

Once students grasp the basics, ask questions to deepen their understanding. Gradually shift from the tangible manipulatives to the more abstract representations on paper. This hands-on approach helps older students visualize and comprehend multiplication. Overall, manipulatives engage multiple senses and make concepts more tangible, aiding learning and retention through building number sense.

3. Real-World Connections

When are we ever going to use this?

Raise your hand if that question has ever graced your classroom!

Thankfully, by using real-world connections in our math lessons, we can answer that question before it’s even asked while building number sense at the same time. Integrating real-world contexts helps students see the relevance of number sense!

One of my favorite ways to get students engaged in math number sense and make connections is with sports. Have students rank and sort the best football quarterbacks, for example, by recording their pass completion records. This real-world connection explores number sense by comparing and ranking numbers. You can even take it a step further and have students create infographics on Canva to illustrate the different sport statistics numbers! This idea shows number sense by focusing on the comparison of numbers.

In addition, make it a point to give your students relevant problems to solve via mental math. Students can figure out which products are cheaper in the store while looking at real-life grocery ads. Then, they can make a shopping list for a meal and even prepare ingredient lists to plant the seeds of understanding with fractions and conversions.

There are also plenty of real-life applications of math concepts that boost number sense in the project-based learning category. For example, I wrote about a Caging the Animals project previously that explores the steps to build number sense while integrating real-world concepts at the same time. Regardless of the resources you end up implementing in your classroom, all of these real-world connections boost number sense and make math real for your students.

4. Daily Number Talks

It’s no secret that I love number talks! If you need a refresher on this fabulous activity, check out my previous blog post detailing how to have effective number talks in your classroom.

During these short discussions, students try mental math exercises that focus on number sense skills such as estimation, place value, and number relationships. For example, you can pose various questions and challenges: “Find three different ways to represent the number 81.”

You can also try short (ten to fifteen-minute) problems that become progressively more challenging each day. Number talks also encourage students to be flexible in their thinking and communicate their mathematical ideas, especially when you push students to defend their claims. Ultimately, daily number talks promote a deeper sense of understanding of numbers and their properties!

5. Problem-Solving Challenges

Finally, you can provide students with problem-solving challenges that require them to apply their number sense skills. Present open-ended tasks with no one specific answer, such as creating a budget for decorating the classroom or planning a dream vacation. I love these types of challenges in particular because students are able to exercise their creativity and stay engaged while boosting their number sense!

Project-based learning definitely falls into this category as well. What’s better than combining all of our learning goals into one neat, numerical package? Like I mentioned before, there are plenty of resources out there for you if you’re in need of something pre-made, but there are also a plethora of ideas for you to explore on your own. Problem-solving challenges are just about infinite!

Ultimately, whether you are using hands-on manipulatives, math games, real-world connections, daily number talks, or problem-solving challenges, you’re making great work in helping your upper elementary students develop a strong foundation for number sense. These number sense activities for upper elementary students help them to explore, practice, and apply their mathematical understanding.

Once you’ve gone through these five activities, check out these number sense math center activities that will sensationalize your math centers! Whether your classroom could benefit more from activity cards or sliders covering place value, rounding, adding, and subtracting, you’re sure to find plenty of rockin’ resources that will impress both you and your students.

Overall, nurturing your classroom’s number sense goes beyond rote memorization and calculations. Number sense is a much broader concept that requires students to think critically, make connections, and develop a deep appreciation for the world of numbers.

Well, okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch… Your students still may not be jumping with joy at the thought of math time, but at least they’ll have a strong, steady foundation and readily understand new math concepts! That’s an excellent start.

Now hop over to your classroom and start making sense of number sense!


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