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Basic Math Skills: How to Use a Deck of Cards to Practice Counting and Sorting with Kids

A child places Cheerios on cards from a deck, corresponding with their number.
Working with things your child can touch and move (like Cheerios) help children connect abstract numbers to tangible quantities.
Preschoolers need to develop counting and sorting skills to lay the foundation for more complex tasks like addition and subtraction. Here are a variety of simple math-related card activities for your child that you can do with a deck of cards and a few Cheerios or small candies.
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Whether we are planning a meal or organizing the contents of a desk, counting and sorting are math skills that we use every day without much thought. Preschoolers need these basic skills to lay the foundation for more complex tasks like addition and subtraction. A fun way to introduce your child to these concepts is as easy as rummaging in a drawer for a deck of cards. With so many numbers and symbols, cards are a great tool for little ones to learn math. Here are a variety of simple math-related card activities for your child that you can do with a deck of cards and a few Cheerios or small candies.

Examine the Cards

Introduce your child to the deck of cards through the lens of math. Ask your child what they notice about the cards. List the different qualities they come up with. Colors, shapes, numbers, combinations of colors and numbers. You can say, “What shape are the cards?” “What is on one side?” “What is on the other side?” “What color is the heart?” The face cards may be a little tricky to mix in with the numbers ones since they don’t feature numbers, but you can save them for sorting.

Count Them Out

After asking your child “How many cards do we have?” you can let your child count them however they choose. It may be easier to turn them over so the numbers don’t make the counting more complicated. If they cannot count all the way to 52, consider breaking the cards into groups of five to 10 (sorting!) and counting them face down.

Make a Sorting Game

Organizing the cards in different ways helps your child understand how numbers and symbols relate to each other. A number is a character with an actual meaning. Ask your child if they want to sort the cards in a certain way. You can say, “Can we put all the black ones together?” “What about all the red ones?” “Can we group all the ones with the same numbers?” If the options are overwhelming, start simple with the face and number cards and say to your child “Let’s put all the cards with faces in one pile and all the number cards in another.” Then move on to more specific categories like grouping together all the cards with numbers and hearts.

Focus on Cardinality

Cardinality is the number of items in a grouping. For example, the cardinality for a deck of cards is 52, since there are 52 cards in a deck. An easy way to compare groups is to create groups of the same cardinality. This is where the face cards come in. Ask your child to organize all the face cards of the same type. You can say, “How many queens are in this deck?” Then arrange the face cards by suit by asking “How many groups of face cards are in this deck?” Comparing like sets is a good way to introduce this important skill because the similarities and differences are more obvious to a young eye.

Order the Cards

Take out the one to 10 cards and lay them out in front of your child. In this case, the ace is the one card. If you need to, you can draw a “1” on each ace or consider using a deck of cards for small children like Uno. Ask your child to line up the cards from one to 10 based on the number on the card or the number of symbols. Depending on the age of your child, you may need to start with fewer cards at a time like one to 5.

Bring in Treats to Make Numbers Real

Working with manipulatives (things your child can touch and move) helps a child connect the abstract number to a tangible quantity. With the one to 10 cards laid out, grab the Cheerios (or small candies) to bring those numbers to life. Your child can place a Cheerio on each heart/club/spade/diamond or line the cheerios up alongside each card. Let them figure out the best way to organize their Cheerios.

Ask your child to count the Cheerios with each card. You can ask, “How many Cheerios do we need for this card? How many are on this one?” so that the number on the card now becomes real since it’s connected to tangible objects.

Compare Cards

Using the cards and Cheerios, help your child compare the cards in terms of larger or smaller. Select two cards at a time and ask “Is this card larger or smaller than that card?” Then add more cards (with or without Cheerios) to ask, “Which is bigger: four, seven or nine?” Lay out a set of three cards in front of your child out of order and ask “Can you place them in order from smallest to largest?” Now, the numbers have even more meaning!

Make Pairs

Pick 10 cards at random out of the deck and lay them out in front of your child. Then, ask your child to pick two cards that are the same to introduce the concept of pairs!

You can turn this into a fun game of child versus parent. First, ask your child to select 10 cards at random and make as many pairs as they can with those cards. Then, you select 10 cards and see how many pairs you can make with your set. Who has more pairs? Look at the leftover cards and see if there are any pairs that can be made when you work together.

Add and Subtract

If your child is ready for it, choose two simple cards like two and three and place them side by side. Then, ask your child to add them up. They can count the symbols on the card or use the Cheerios to help them out. If they can add, they can also try subtracting. You can help them out by saying, “If two plus three equals five, what happens if I take away the two card and its two Cheerios?” “How many do I have left?”

Clean Up by Ordering Them Again

After your child is ready to move onto a new activity, use the cleanup time as a last sorting session. Ask your child to place the cards in the box in a specific order. You can say, “Let’s put all the cards with clubs in first, then the spades, hearts and diamonds.”

While it is helpful to guide your child through the counting and sorting of cards, make sure the cards are always accessible so they can play with them on their own time and in their own way. Math is everywhere and it’s more fun when you don’t have to work too hard to find it!

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