Creating an Early Years Mathematician Using Numicon

So what is a number really?

Well, each number we say or write is just a representation of quantity. If you think about it, why does the shape '3' mean three? It could as easily have been '€'. Teaching children the value of each symbol is actually quite a strange concept.

When children are little they see and hear numbers all the time; in nursery rhymes; on the toys they play with; on books and on the television etc. Consequently most children can do a little counting before they reach school, but do they truly understand what 'three' actually means? Can they make the connection between a symbol and an amount?


Numicon is a fantastic resource for children to play with whilst learning the value of a number. These clever little shapes are designed to be used in so many ways and are suitable from a young age.  It is a system we use in our maths tuition and it is very successful.

Each shape between 1 and 10 has the corresponding number of holes in it and its own individual colour e.g. a ‘1’ is always orange with one hole, a ‘5’ is red with five holes etc.  This makes the shape easy to identify by colour and it quantifies the value with the holes.

So what can you do with this colourful holey resource?  There are so many things, but here are 5 favourites to begin your Numicon learning journey.

1)    Make A Number Line

Play with the shapes together and describe them.  How many holes does the shape have? What colour are they? Can they count the hole reliably by putting a finger in each hole as they count?  This is a great activity for very young children who are at the start of learning about numbers.  Once the shapes have been identified, begin to work with your little one to put them in order.  As they become familiar with the order you can start to match it up to the matching symbol (the written number).


2)    Place Value

So if there are only 10 shapes, what do you do when you get to 11? This is where Numicon comes into its own. The shapes really help with place value.  When you write 11 it appears as a one and a one, however what it means is a ten and a 1 (so where you place the digit in the number changes its value.) However when you create 11 in Numicon you use a 10 shape and a 1 shape.  This way the number of holes is still correct and it avoids the confusion of the shape being represented as 1+1 = 2.


3)    Number Bonds to 10

A number bond is a pair of numbers that when added together make a total. Learning number bonds to 5, 10 and 20 are key objectives that Reception and Key Stage 1 children need to learn.

0+10 = 10

1+9 = 10

2+8 = 10 and so on.

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Each of these can be placed next to or on top of a 10 shape, which shows that these pairs of numbers are indeed the same and equal to 10. 


Now here is where it gets really clever.  The shapes are also weighted.  Meaning if you have a balance scale you can place a 10 on one side and the scale will only balance if the numbers on the other side equal 10 as well!  (This works for all numbers not just bonds to 10)

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4)    Odd and Even Feely Bag Counting

Numicon shapes are designed with what we like to call ‘a sticky up bit’. The shapes are made with 2 holes in pairs, this means that all even numbers have holes with friends. However an odd number is also laid out in the same way, but there will always be 1 hole without a friend, creating the ‘sticky up bit’. (Very technical I know). What this means is a child can easily see if a number is odd or even just by looking at it. 

Odd Numbers have a “sticky up bit at the top” Even numbers, each hole has a friend next to it

Odd Numbers have a “sticky up bit at the top” Even numbers, each hole has a friend next to it


A fun game to play with young children is to place a selection of shapes in a feely bag (any soft fabric bag that’s not see-through is fine).  Take it in turns to be the person holding the bag. Select a shape in the bag and explore it through touch.  Do NOT pull the shape out of the bag or look at it.  The exploring must only be done with fingers.

-       Can you feel how many holes there are?

-       Does it have a sticky up bit? Etc.  

The person/s without the bag can then ask 5 questions (adjust the number to suit the child).  The bag holder can only answer yes or no until someone guesses the number they are holding or the questions run out and then you switch.  This game is great for both sides as they are both exploring the number and familiarising themselves with the properties as the game unfolds.

5)    Adding/ Taking Away

This is similar to the number bonds to 10 activity. Children often find missing number problems very challenging.  For example 7-? = 3. With Numicon you can choose the 7 shape (it’s pink) and place a 3 shape (it’s yellow) on top of it.  This will show that 4 holes haven’t been covered.  You can count the holes to see what’s missing and then to check that you are correct, find the 4 shape (it’s pale green) and make sure that it fits on the uncovered holes exactly.  This will then show

3+4=7 or 4+3=7 or 7-4=3 or 7-3=4.

The term ‘find the difference’ comes up frequently.  This mathematical vocabulary means that you need to do a takeaway calculations.  Numicon is a great way to check your answers and the best thing is you can start with any number you like and take away any number you like!  Maybe try these:

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This is just a small introduction to Numicon for younger children.  It is also useful for older kids in many other ways, such as algebra, problem solving, money questions and multiplication tables.  Watch this space for the next Numicon blog installment.

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