Building Number Sense in First Grade

Building number sense in first grade can seem daunting but with the right number sense activities and lessons, it can be a lot of fun! In this post, I hope to share with you a lot of engaging number sense ideas that will help your students continue to build their number sense all year long, no matter where they are at when they come to you from kindergarten.

This is a LONG post but I promise there are a TON of great number sense ideas in here - keep reading!
I've broken it into sections to make it a little easier to navigate: The Hundreds Chart, Representing Numbers in Different Ways, Counting, Counting Forward Starting At Any Number, and Ten Frames

The Hundreds Chart
My first piece of advice is to make sure your students are exposed to a 1-120 chart every single day! Use it A TON. Every day. The more they see it, the better.

My first tip...
Use the number chart as a classroom management tool!
Make a poster-sized number chart and hang it on the wall. Print out my number cards (1-120) and put them in a bucket. When students are being good (or if they meet a goal you set for them), pick a student to go pick a number out of the bucket. They bring you the number and you color it in on the number chart. Be sure to use a light colored colored pencil or crayon so they can still see the number easily. When they get an entire row or column colored in, they get a SECRET PRIZE. Dun dun duuuunn! You can bet EVERY kid is watching that chart when it happens, looking at the numbers, and trying to figure out which ones they still need, especially as it gets more and more filled up!

Announce the number excitedly. "55! Can someone come show me where 55 is?" and then color it in. "What numbers could we use with 55 to make a line?" and then you'll have students counting by 10s unknowingly (5, 15, 25, 35, 45, 65, 75, etc.) and by 1s (50, 51, 52, etc.) and there are a lot of other great questions you can ask here and there. Or you can just color in the number and they'll still be engaged. It's a great classroom management tool that helps with behavior AND number sense. Win win!

The beauty is that it will take a LONG time to fill up the chart before you get a full line so you can use it as a behavior management tool for awhile. After you get a full line, think of something fun to do as the secret prize like an extra recess with popsicles or whatever you want to give them! AND THEN... tell them they get another secret prize when they fill up the entire chart!

Have fun math stations that use the 120 Chart! 
One of my favorite 120 chart centers (and I have a lot) is Who Am I? because it is fun, mysterious, and great for both number recognition and working with the hundreds chart.

I have this in a bunch of fun themes like ocean animals, farm animals, bugs, zoo animals, etc.
Just tell your kids that the animals have taken over the hundreds chart and you need them to help you figure out which number the animal stole... so they look at where the animal is, figure out what number it is, and write it next to that animal on their recording sheet! Easy but great practice!

Another 120 chart activity I love is Race to Fill. All you need for this center is empty 120 charts. Have students work in partners to race to fill up the 120 chart. THIS IS THE BEST GAME EVER. They think it's a super fun race... really, they're just filling in a 120 chart. They sit next to their partner and share a blank 120 chart. When you say GO, the first partner writes in 1 and hands it quickly to their partner who writes 2 and gets it back to write 3 and hands it to their partner who writes 4... all the way to 120! They will be rushing to write and hand it back and forth - it's just a blast!
Race to Fill 100 is one of my favorite math partner games! Click for directions for this math game and a lot of other learning numbers activities
In the beginning of the year and/or to teach the game (or for your lower kids), you can use my blank 1-20 chart so it's not too overwhelming. Then you can move up to the 1-50 charts and eventually the 1-120 chart. Oh, this is important - have students write with markers and make sure partners have a different color so that you can see they did their equal share. Otherwise, you might have one just start writing when you're not looking & you can avoid the whole, "He cheated!!" tattling fiasco.

Another fun game is Boxed Out.
For this game, you'll use the 1-120 number cards again (mix them up and put them upside down) and the Boxed Out hundreds chart. Students take turns drawing a number and placing their color marker on the number. First person to get 5 numbers in a row (in any direction) wins!
SO MANY NUMBERS GAMES! Save this link!

You can also have them color in the number in their color crayon. This way, they can still see the numbers while they're playing AND it will disallow "bumping."
SO MANY NUMBERS GAMES! Save this link!

This is a great center because they have to "read" the number and locate it on their hundreds chart - the more practice they get with finding numbers on the chart, the quicker they'll get and they'll start to recognize the patterns in the chart (this whole column ends in a 5, this whole row is 30s, all the 10s are at the end, etc.)

Speaking of the 1-120 number cards, I LOVE these because you can use them for sooo many things...
- Keep a set in your bucket for the classroom management 100 chart idea I talked about
- Use them for small group number recognition fun: Have a small group of students sit at your teacher table. Take the stack of cards and put them upside down in front of you. Hold the first card up in front of the 1st student at your table. If they can tell you what number it is ("thirty-two"), you give them the card. If they don't know it, the person next to them has a chance... if that person knows it, they keep it & if they don't know it, the next person gets a chance. It's a fast-paced fun game where they collect as many numbers as they can.
- Students can play War with a partner when they're done with their regular work. Have them separate the cards into 2 upside down piles then they each flip one at a time from their pile. Whoever has the bigger number gets to keep both cards. Great number recognition and number sense practice!
- Give them a handful of cards and have them put them in numerical order. Easy small group activity.

Dice just seem to make anything more fun! I love dice. Dice are great for subitizing and you really want your students to be able to look at the 5 dots and know it's 5 without counting them each time. The more they play with dice, the better that'll get! :)

For Roll A Number, they simply roll 2 dice.. draw their dice and write the number they made. So if they roll a 2 and a 3, they made 23. Simple, effective subitizing practice, number recognition, number writing, etc.

If you want to make it a game, have 2 students play side by side, take turns rolling/writing their number, and the kid with the bigger number in that round circles his on his recording sheet. Most circles wins. Anything you can make seem like a game is a win!

Count together every single day with personal 1-120 charts!
If you are counting together during calendar pointing to a poster on the wall, stop it!
Okay okay, keep doing it if you want to but what if I told you there's a better way that will build their number sense so much faster?? When you're the one pointing, some kids aren't looking or the numbers just aren't registering the same or maybe it's going too fast for them.

INSTEAD - give each child a printed out 1-120 chart in their math folders. Have them sit in their seats so you can walk around and ensure every person has their finger on 1 to start. Once everyone is on 1, have them touch 1 and say "one," touch 2 and say "two," touch 3 and say "three," etc. for every number. Only count to 20 the first few days. Spend a lot of time making sure every student is touching the number as they say it. Do this as a math warmup every day! Once they get good at 20, move up to 50, then 100, then 120. Don't just jump in at 50 even if they can do it - let them build their stamina! Make it a big deal when they can move up to bigger kid numbers (woohoo!). It's not the most fun thing in the world but it doesn't take that long and they will really get a lot out of counting while looking at and touching each number! It will really solidify their number recognition and will help them start to see patterns in the numbers by having to focus on where the numbers are on the chart. You can also add counting by 2s, 5s, 10s, etc. when the time comes - again, make sure they're touching it! It will really help them see how it really does skip by 2 or skip by 5 or skip by 10 on the chart.

Make 120 chart puzzles!
You've probably seen this idea everywhere but it's worth mentioning because it's a great one. I wish I could say I thought of it (and I wish I knew who did!) but I've seen it a million places.

Print 120 charts on a few different colors of copy paper, cut them up, and put them into baggies as a center. I recommend only doing 1 puzzle in each color so that if the pieces get mixed up, your students know which baggie to put them back into during cleanup.

You can just give them to your students to complete without any guidance OR give them a white NOT cut up 120 chart to lay their pieces on top of as a guide if they need extra help.

Another fun idea is to write numbers on the back of puzzle pieces and have them put it together. The 100 piece puzzles from the dollar store are perfect! Easy, CHEAP center!

Use a 100 piece puzzle from the dollar store to create  super easy numbers math activity to practice counting to 100

Representing Numbers in Different Ways

I think it's important to show numbers represented in a lot of different ways like the written form, dots, objects, fingers, ten frames, etc.

Use puzzles and fun matching games!
I have little cards that have ten frames, written form, objects (apples), dots, and finger counting cards for numbers 1-20. You can use them for so many different things! You can pick any 2, or 3, or 4 (however many they can handle!) card types and have them match them to each other. For example, have them match the number cards (3) to the ten frame (3 dots on a ten frame) card. Easy mix and match centers! Also great for working with small groups! You can really use these over and over all year.
Awesome activities for learning numbers for kids of any age!

Puzzles are also fun to match up the different representations of a number

Use cut and paste activities!
Anyone who reads my blog knows I have cut and paste activities for every math concept imaginable. I LOVE them. Puffy heart love.

Don't assume they can count objects!
They might be able to say the numbers 1-120 perfectly but don't be fooled! Make sure they can actually count pictures or objects and figure out how many. A lot of kids just keep counting but they need to understand that when they are counting, when they run out of objects, they STOP and that is how many there are.

Worksheets are a quick and easy way to assess their counting skills!

& of course some cut and pastes....

Use centers to practice counting
One center I love because it is self-checking are just simple counting puzzles. If they count the wrong number and it's not one of the numbers to match, they know they need to try again :)

Counting puzzles and a ton of other numbers activities for kindergarten or first grade math
They simply count the object, match it to the write number, and then write the number on their recording sheet next to that object!

Another center I love for counting is Grab It!
Students simply grab a handful from the bucket and put it in front of them. Next, they guess how many they grabbed, and write it on their recording sheet. Then, they count the objects and write the real number in the 2nd circle.

Grab estimate and count - great math center for building number sense

Here you can see I used pom pom balls but you can use ANYTHING! You can make it seasonal and cute or just use any math manipulative or even fun objects like scary eyeballs at Halloween. The bigger the object, the easier the center is.. so if you want to make the center harder, use a smaller object.

Another fun center that your students will love is Stack It!
Do your students love building towers with their math manipulatives? ...pshh, of course they do! Here's a way they can do it and actually be learning...

So many fun numbers games to build number sense... click for directions on how to play this math center Stack It and lots of other math games

Give your students a bucket of stacking/linking/whatever-you-call-them cubes that link together and dice. Student A rolls the dice and whatever number he rolls starts his tower - so if he rolls a 3, he stacks 3 cubes and stands them up. Student B rolls a 5 and stacks 5 cubes and stands it up. Now it gets tricky! Each time they roll, they make that number by linking that number of cubes together first AND THEN try to connect their new stack to their existing, standing stack and not have it fall over. So fun, right?? They obviously want to build that tallest tower possible without it falling over. This is a great game for counting that builds great pre-addition skills but make sure you have a we-don't-cry-when-our-tower-falls conversation first! Just say: If you cry, you never get to play again. EVER. [Cue evil teacher laugh].... Just kidding :)

Instead of stacking cubes, you can also use them to fill something up! Not sure what this center would be called... Let's go with... Race to Fill it Up! because I am just all out of creativity by this point in the post!

Each student gets a cup. On their turn, they roll the dice and put that many of whatever the object is in their cup. First to fill their cup wins!

Count in line!
If you have a few extra minutes in line because you underestimated your hungry students' ability to pack up in 2 seconds for lunch, a game is a great way to keep them learning... and quiet! Have the line leader start at 0 and the person behind them says 1, next person says 2, etc. all the way down the line. When you get to little Johnny at the end of the line at 26, the person in front of Johnny who just said 25 will flip it back around and say 27 and it'll go back up the line the other direction. Keep counting and flipping until it's time to go - challenge them to see how high they can get! It'll be nice and quiet because they'll want to hear the number coming for them! If you do 2 lines, have them race! If a student does not know a number, please don't make them sit down or be "out" - they're the ones that need to be participating the most! Plus, you don't want to make them feel bad. Give them a few seconds, prompt if you can, and then just help them if they still can't get it. I know you know this but let's keep those affective filters low and learning lighthearted!  

Counting Forward from Any Number
Oh man, counting on from any starting point! This can be a tough one! With a bunch of exposure to the 120 chart using the number sense activites above, though, they should be able to rock it soon enough.

Use dice!
I know, I know. Dice and cut and pastes- I'm like a broken record :)
Dice are always a good motivator though, am I right?

This takes the Roll A Number center above a step further and has them roll the number and then write the numbers that come next. The great thing about dice is that they could do this activity 50 times and get different numbers every time and I am a firm believer in doing math stations multiple times. The more times they do it, the more proficient they get. Especially with centers like this, they don't get bored. It's dice. New numbers every time. Playing with friends. They know what to do. They're content. :)

Practice, practice!
Worksheets and cut and pastes are straightforward ways to practice the skill. I recommend allowing the use of the 120 chart for students who are struggling.

Practicing in centers is also a good idea. Have them draw a card from your number cards stack, write it, and fill in the numbers that come after it.

Ten Frames
Ten frames are all the rage right now and I really do feel like they help students, especially when moving into addition. The more instantaneous they can "read" the numbers, the better.

Make your own magnetic ten frames!
Okay so these are so super simple to make and great for centers/small groups! Go to the dollar store and grab some magnetic cookie sheets. Find a magnet in the dollar store and stick it on to double check they're magnetic before you buy them! Then, get tape and tape it off into a ten frame. Last, use some cute magnets as your dots!
Directions for how to build a ten frame out of a magnetic cookie sheet from the dollar store and lots of other great ideas
Your students will love them... and they're so cheap to make!

More puzzles & cut and pastes, of course!
Ten frame puzzles

Use cotton swabs and paint to color in ten frames!
You could have students draw dots into their ten frame worksheets using a pencil..... or you could be crowned THE BEST TEACHER EVER and let them paint in their ten frames using cotton swabs!

It's super easy, uses hardly any paint, and you'll get to see their cute little concentration faces as they try to dab them perfectly into each square.
Painting numbers into ten frames

Simply give them one of my ten frame worksheets where it has the number they need to make and empty ten frames and let them paint the ten frames in to be that number.

You can also use one of my twenty frame worksheets!
Painting numbers into ten frames and a lot of other great learning numbers activities

Recycle old egg cartons into ten frames!
Cut off the flaps and 2 of the egg holders and - voila! - instant ten frame! These are great for students to use in small groups because they're small enough for each student to have one and things don't fall out of them easily. Big pom pom balls are perfect to use as the dots.

Recycle egg cartons (cut 2 compartments off) to make ten frames to use with pom poms - read this for a ton of math ideas!

Assessment time!
Number sense is one of the many concepts that your students will come to you all over the board. Some will be able to fill in a 120 chart on day 1 and others will still be struggling with one-to-one correspondence. That's why it's so important to assess them day 1 and throughout the year.

I have A BUNCH of 1-20 charts, 1-50 charts, and 1-100 charts for assessments that you can use all year. I have a blank version of each as well as a totally traceable version of each for the students who really need extra help. Slip a traceable one in a sheet protector and have that struggling kiddo use a dry erase marker to write their numbers with the 1-20 chart, then the 50, then the 120.

I also have charts where some numbers are already filled in... in different levels. For example, a 120 chart where only a few numbers are missing that they have to fill in, one where a decent amount are missing, one where all but a few numbers are missing, etc. I'm all about the differentiation!

I also have number recognition boards where the numbers are mixed up - you and the student you're assessing each get one. Just cross off the numbers they miss. There are 3 assessments to a page and space to date it so you can see the progress.
Numbers assessments and activities for practice number sense in first grade or kindergarten

& of course, just a normal unit test like I do for all of my math units.

These are just SOME of the many number sense activities, worksheets, and centers found in my Number Sense math unit.

If you want to get all of the centers, worksheets, and activities you saw in this blog post - and a whole lot more number sense fun - in a simple click, they are all bundled up and ready for you in my First Grade Math Unit 1 pack!
AMAZING number sense first grade math unit that practices counting to 10, 20, 50, and 120, reading and writing numbers to 120, counting forward from any number, 10 frames, and 20 frames!

Click HERE or on the image to grab it!

I also have this in Spanish: Sentido NĂșmerico!

I really hope you were able to get some great ideas for teaching your students number sense from this post! I know my posts are often really long but I just always want to provide you with lots of ideas that you can take into your classroom. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me share them with you! Every teacher who reads teaching blogs in their spare time (which I know isn't much!) is a ROCK STAR in my eyes so if you're feeling overwhelmed with the beginning of the year and how in the world you're going to teach these little kiddos number sense, don't worry! You've got this. You're using what little free time you have to help yourself become an amazing teacher... and you know what that tells me? You already are!

Want to read more MATH ideas from me?
Check out these fun posts:
Place Value
Telling Time
Adding 3 Numbers
Fact Fluency
Making a 10 to Add
Graphing and Data

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Don't forget to join Miss Giraffe's Class so you never miss out on fun ideas and exclusive free stuff from me only for subscribers!


  1. Becca - your number chart behavior idea is GENIUS!!!!!
    Teaching and Much Moore

    1. Thanks so much, Vicky!! I'm all about any tricky way to get kids practicing reading or math without knowing it :)

  2. Becca - your number chart behavior idea is GENIUS!!!!!
    Teaching and Much Moore

  3. It is so hard to pick just one activity. I loved all of them. In fact I brought the bundle a few months ago during Teacher Appreciation at TPT. But I do love the Who Am I?

  4. Replies
    1. Aww you're so sweet! Thanks so much, Christina!

  5. I absolutely 100% LOVE this blog post!! :) Number sense is one of my favorite things to teach, and I am loving all these amazing ideas!

    1. and I absolutely 100% love you so I'm glad you love it! Thanks Haley! I love number sense too - there are just so many fun things you can do!

  6. Wow! This is an amazing post! I've been teaching for a long time but you still have ideas I haven't seen before. Thank you!!
    Grade ONEderful

    1. That makes me really happy to hear you say that!! Thanks for taking the time to leave a sweet comment. :)

  7. This was such a great resource, thank you!!

    1. I'm so glad you found it helpful! I hope you got a lot of fun new ideas! :)

  8. I can't find where to download the number cards 1-120. Can you help me.

    1. Hi there! They're in my Unit 1 Number Sense pack you can find here:

  9. I love your ideas! Are you working on any kind of second grade pack?

  10. Replies
    1. So are you I'm sure!! Thanks for taking the time to leave a nice comment! :)

  11. This is a great post! Thanks so much for your ideas. LOVE the hundreds chart behaviour management idea :) I'm off to print a huge chart tomorrow!!!!

    1. Thank you!! I hope your students love filling in the chart and get a lot of number recognition practice out of it! :)

  12. I love these activities! Do you use a math series where you teach? Just wondering if your units are intended to be stand-alone or if you use them with a series? Thanks for all of your great ideas!

  13. Wow, what an incredible post! Seriously, I want to try EVERY.SINGLE.ONE of these things. I think I will do the paint ten frames next week. I always love your stuff and just decided I need to be your newest follower! Seriously, thanks for sharing!
    Our Elementary Lives

  14. Do you have a way to download the number chart games?

  15. IS there any way that I could download everything with the number chart? I would like to use for my class.

  16. WOW thanks some great ideas and super fun looking.

  17. Thank you thank you thank you! This is exactly what I've needed!

  18. I am currently using the Number Sense math unit with my firsties and it so fun and engaging for them! Thank you for sharing!

  19. I've never commented on a blog post before! I just had to after reading this! I am a first year teacher and I so badly was trying to figure out a way to start my math centers. You've helped a ton. But, what officially made my life complete is that you have this in Spanish!! I teach in a dual language classroom and my math time will be in Spanish. THANK YOU SO MUCH! :)

    1. Aww I am so happy to hear that!! Thank you so much for your sweet comment!

  20. Wonderful activities for number sense. Do you leave the cards for se the number chart as a classroom management tool in sequence or mix them up? Thank you so much!!

  21. Hi! hola tienes algĂșn material para compartir y poder descargar ??

    1. Hi! Yes! :)

  22. Your number sense activities have been a great resource for my struggling learners. I also love the idea of using the 100s chart for classroom management!

    1. I am so happy to hear they've been helpful for you! Thank you for taking the time to leave a sweet comment! :)