Numicon-Based Math Activities for Preschoolers with (or without) Down Syndrome

Last spring, I read more research by Sue Buckley, Joanna Nye, and colleagues about educating young children with Down Syndrome; this time it was about teaching math. They ran a study in the early 2000s assessing the effectiveness of the Numicon System in helping young children with T21 develop basic number skills.

Their findings were promising:

The key benefits of using Numicon for children with Down syndrome in the classroom are:
• The materials and methods clearly support the development of early number concepts, and in particular the ability to calculate – for some children, using Numicon enabled them to develop these skills for the first time
• It enables teaching staff to ‘see’ what the child is thinking, which is important for identifying both successes and confusions in the child’s understanding
• It can be used to support everyday number skills such as time and money
• It is especially beneficial to children who use a visual and/or multi-sensory approach to learning
• Children are motivated to engage with the materials as they are so attractive, and they develop confidence in maths work as they can succeed with the materials
• The clear structure of the teaching system is useful for teaching staff looking for a way to differentiate the numeracy curriculum.
The benefit of using the Numicon approach was seen most clearly at the stage when the children were learning to manipulate numbers – to add, subtract and multiply.

Teaching Number Skills to children with Down Syndrome using the Numicon Foundation Kit

Of course, I had to go purchase the kit and play math with Junior. And being very pleased with Junior’s progress, I shared the 50-page study with my sister. As many of you know, she also has a young son with special needs. Quickly she emailed me back: TLTR. (Too Long to Read) Can you write up a dummies version?

Of course I can. So this post is for my sister and all other super busy moms who want to know how to teach basic number skills to young kids with or without T21.

To start, you need the First Steps with Numicon at Home kit:

In the U.S. and Canada, this can be purchased from Amazon; in England/Europe you can order it from Oxford University Press.

The kit comes with an excellent parent’s guide. Many of the activities I’m sharing with you come straight from the guide; others are knock-offs from DSE’s See and Learn First Counting.

Here are some of our favorite math activities using the Numicon System:

1. Creating a number line: Help your child put the numbers in order. Start with 1-5 and once he/she has mastered that, teach him/her to put them in order from 1-10.

The Numicon Kit comes with its own numbers, but I made these to be color-coordinated with the Numicon shapes. (Scroll all the way down if you want them).

2. Lining up and sorting the Numicon Shapes under their numbers:

I keep the shapes in a little cloth bag. Junior pulls out a shape, names it, and places it under its corresponding number. One of the goals is identifying the Numicon shapes by feel, and this activity helps with that.

3. Covering the board gives children familiarity with the pieces and promotes problem solving:

This is Junior’s favorite Numicon activity. As he places a piece on the board, he tells me what number it is. With time, he will see how numbers fit together, for example: a two and a three make a five.

4. Matching shapes helps children to identify them:

Place 3-4 shapes on the left side of the board. Let your child pull a shape out of the bag, determine if it matches with any of the shapes on the board, and if so, place it next to its matching shape. At this point, we want out kids to identify the shape number without counting, just as they read sight words without sounding out each letter in the word. Counting the holes will come later on….

5. Sorting pegs by color is a great fine motor activity and reinforces color names:

6. Copying a pattern on the board:

I arrange a pattern on the top of the board and help Junior replicate the pattern. Tip: Only put out the pieces your child will need to make the pattern.

7. Beading the pegs to make a pattern:

Putting beads on a shoe lace actually takes a lot of motor planning. If your child struggles with getting the beads on, leave off making patterns for now and just work on helping him/her to bead. You can make this activity more fun and exciting by helping your child hold the top end of the string up high and letting the beads slide down fast as he/she puts them on. Once beading is easy, then introduce making patterns.

8. Copying a number shape with pegs:

Place a number shape at the top of the board. Give your child the correct number of pegs needed to copy the shape. Then together count the pegs. Once your child can do that, see if he/she can copy a shape off the peg board:

9. Placing pegs in a hole and counting them:

Let your child pull a shape out of the bag and identify it. Have him/her place it on the board. Then give the correct number of pegs and have him/her place them in the shape while counting.

You can turn this into a pretend play game by having your child pretend to feed stuffed animals:

Then expand on this using non-numicon items, but have your child arrange them they way pegs are arranged in the numicon shapes:

10. Identifying a quantity by shape:

Arrange pegs on the board in the shape of a numicon shape. See if your child can identify the quantity simply by the shape of the arranged pegs (not by counting). Then help your child count the pegs. Let him choose from 2-3 numicon shapes to find the matching shape and place it on top. If he’s ready, give him a turn at making a shape with the pegs.

11. Ordering the shapes from smallest to largest:

Help your child to do this on two ways: 1) placing them in order by size, and 2) naming the numbers and ordering them based on rote counting.

12. You can also use the Numicon shapes and pegs to teach other preschool concepts such as:

Same and different

Tall, Taller, Tallest and Short, shorter, shortest (using the even numbered shapes)

Long and short (using pegs on a string or on the Numicon board)

Comparing groups of objects using words such as more, fewer, less, same, all, none (using the pegs)

For preschool, these activities are probably enough. But Numicon shapes can also be used to teach even and odd numbers, number bonds within ten, simple addition and subtraction, and more.

For detailed explanations on how to use the Numicon system, see Teaching Number Skills to children with Down Syndrome using the Numicon Foundation Kit by Joanna Nye. At the very least, check out her flow chart, which suggests which order to do the different activities.

Finally, here are samples of a free set of Numicon-based number cards and worksheets I made for Junior:

Download the worksheets here:

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