How many juice boxes do we need for the party? About how many coins are in the jar? Estimating “how many” is a math skill we use almost every day. It’s also a skill that many kids struggle with. What is it that makes estimation hard?
Read on for answers, and for how to help kids with estimating “how many.”
How kids learn to estimate
Experts believe babies are born with a basic sense of quantity. Young kids can sense when some quantity is more than another. But they don’t automatically know how to say a word for it.
One of the first math skills kids learn is to match a number word to a quantity, like saying “five” to represent five dots. They also learn to count. Eventually, they learn that the Arabic numeral 5 is the same as the word five, and that both represent a group of five objects.
Kids can’t estimate without these basic math skills. They also need to go one step further and learn that quantities don’t have to be fixed. “Around 10 dots” might be more or less than exactly 10.
As kids get better at counting and calculating exact numbers, their ability to estimate improves. For example, knowing that 20 + 20 = 40 makes it a lot easier to estimate what 23 + 25 is.
What trouble estimating can look like
Kids estimate quantity in simple ways and complex ways. For instance, how many apples are in a small bowl? Or they may estimate large numbers — about how many people are in this sports stadium?
Computing can involve estimation, too. For example, you might want to buy a $45 shirt and a $78 jacket. Without doing all the math, if I have $100, is it enough?
When kids have trouble with estimating, you might see them:
Give estimates that are wildly off
Change their estimate if an object is bigger in size — for example, estimating that a group of five large apples is more than a group of eight small apples
Not understand that an estimate doesn’t have to be an exact number
Get stuck and not be able to guess or give an estimate at all
Why kids struggle with estimating
A big reason kids have trouble estimating “how many” is because they haven’t learned basic math skills. If you don’t understand how numbers relate to each other, estimation is very difficult.
Even when they know the basics, kids might still struggle if estimation hasn’t been clearly explained to them. They may think numbers have to be exact. And they may not have had enough practice trying to guess different quantities.
Kids develop differently, of course. Some pick up math skills and learn how to estimate with just a bit of teaching. But it’s common for others to need extra practice and time to learn.
Finally, even with teaching and practice, some kids continue to struggle with estimating. This could be a sign of an underlying challenge in math.
How to help kids learn to estimate
Math is all around us, and you can help your child learn math outside of school. At the store, ask your child to guess how many people are standing in line at the checkout without counting. Or how many people are in a room you enter. With time and practice, kids can get better at estimating.
If your child is having trouble with estimating “how many,” start by taking notes on what you see. And talk with the teacher to find out how math is going in the classroom. This can help you understand what’s happening.
Math skills don’t develop automatically, so ask if the teacher has covered estimation in class. Check that your child has the chance to practice. It doesn’t need to be worksheets. Your child can learn through play.