I was never amazing at packing enticing activities for my little one while waiting at a restaurant. I’d always remember, right as we handed our waitress the menus, that prepared moms packed a goodie bag to keep their children occupied. Luckily, I learned how to make due with what we had. As my daughter hit toddlerhood, we began playing games with the sugar and jelly packets often found at breakfast diners. From this, restaurant math was born.

The idea of this activity is to support a child’s ability to subitize (seeing a quantity without having to count it). This is a vital skill and kids are able to subitize small quantities from a very early age.

So the idea is this . . .

Select a few different sugar or jelly packets. Quickly scatter them in groups for your child to see. Initially, put out one or two items and ask, “How many?” Your child will likely be able tell you without having to count. Here’s the most important part. After your child tells you how many, always follow up with, “How do you see it?” This will seem silly with just 1 or 2 packets because it’s pretty obvious, even if you’re 3! Even so, it’s ok for your child to learn to say, “I can just see it!” When you start to increase the quantity, it helps your child develop a verbal pathway to explain his/her thinking about the connection between quantity and adding. So if you put out 5 packets, your child might say, “I see 3 and 2.” or “I see 4 and 1.” The colors you use and the arrangement you use will impact what your child sees. When you first start increasing the quantity, separate the items with a lot of space and by color. This will help your child “see” the groups. As your child gets stronger at subitizing, you can put the items in one group. Think about dice patterns. Here are some photos of what this might look like early on.

Even though your child may be able to see the groups, don’t expect him/her to know the total without counting. Early on, children will need to count to determine the total. In the picture above, your child might say, “I see 2 blue and 1 pink, that’s 3. There are 3 yellow! So 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, 6!” As children become more familiar with the different groupings, he/she will begin to recognize how smaller groups are combined to create a larger total.

For more information on early subitizing, read the article, Beyond Counting by Ones, by Deann Huinker. This article is full of activities you can do with your child.

What activities have you invented to keep your kiddo occupied? I’d love to hear about it!