Pre-Math Skills: Understanding Numbers

There are three main types of numbers:
  • cardinal (counting items in a set, e.g. “two” = 2 blocks)
  • nominal (labels, e.g. “two” as a bus or house number)
  • ordinal (showing rank or position, e.g. “second” in the race, “page number two”)
As you can see from the examples above, something as simple as the number "two" can, in fact, be rather complicated and therefore confusing for early learners.  Exploring all three types of numbers enables young children to construct a solid understanding of numbers and therefore lays excellent foundations for later experiences in math (see Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development for fascinating research as to how children learn). 

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for some early years teachers and parents to focus on the cardinal aspect of numbers.  As such, many children later experience difficulties with concepts such as mental math and positive and negative numbers.

As such, I thought I’d share some of my ideas for exploring nominal and ordinal numbers.

Nominal Numbers

Include a telephone directory and toy telephone in your role-play area.  Encourage children to "call" people/businesses as part of their dramatic play.

Have a Circle Time session about what children should do if they get lost.  Make a telephone craft that involves each child writing or cutting and pasting their own telephone numbers.  If children are too young to memorise their telephone numbers, have them make telephone number bead bracelets.

Discuss addresses.  If you are lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in your class you can have lots of fun with Google Maps!  Have your students draw a picture/write a letter to their favourite Disney character.  If they include their home address they will get an autographed reply! 

Ordinal Numbers 

Expose your children to fun and varied number lines - vertical ladders, circular lines (for example on kitchen scales or clocks) and play hopscotch.  Don’t exclusively use the same standard left to right number line. 

Play games that reinforce number sequence, for example snakes and ladders. Click here to access a link to some fun interactive number sequencing games.  


Reinforce page number sequence during reading sessions.  “Who can find the page with…?”, “What page number is next?”, “What is the previous page number?”. 

Discuss the date every day.  “What date is today?” . “What date will tomorrow be?”, “What date was yesterday?”

Your ideas?

I'd love to hear about what you do in your classes to explore nominal and ordinal numbers.  Please use the comments section below to share your ideas.  

Thank you for reading!



  1. To review ordinal numbers with kinder and first grade I would point to colors on a chart and have the tel me if it was 1st, 2nd, etc. I also passed out cards with numbers and had the children line up in order which is much more difficult for them than it sounds since they had to find the students whose numbers came before and after theirs.

  2. Anything that involves kinders moving around is always a hit! I saw a great pin yesterday that had children wearing a white sticker with a number fact on it (e.g. 2x4) and all day that child would be referred to as "eight" by teachers and classmates. It could easily work and be a lot of fun with early years children by just having a number (e.g. "8"). They could use that number to line up in order all day long!


Your comments are always appreciated! Thank you!!