Learning to count forwards is the first priority for children. It is also something they experience more in their lives, and so naturally more important and easier to grasp.
But when they have become confident at counting forwards, you can then teach the important skill of counting backwards.
You start to teach counting backwards by learning to count by rote. Counting songs that have blast offs in are a great way to introduce this. Start with counting back from 5, and move on to 10.
However, when the children are good at counting back by rote, it is time to mix it up a bit. The next step is to count back from a given number.
This is a much more useful skill in life than counting back by rote. Very rarely do you need to count back by rote for anything in life. You do, however, regularly need to count back from a given number. For example, you have seven biscuits but eat two. How many do you have?
Counting back from seven is much easier than counting out all five.
But how do you teach counting back from a given number?
Introduce counting back from a given number by using simple number lines to support the concept. Use a variety of number lines, such as a hopscotch board outside, or a big number line on the floor.
You can also introduce other fun strategies such as counting backwards with puppets, or counting backwards in teams.
This article highlights 14 of my favourite games and strategies to help children to count back from a given number.
1. Singing number songs that go backwards
This is the best way of learning to count backwards by rote, and it is also a good place to start when addressing counting back from a given number. (For more brilliant rote counting ideas check this article out).
Instead of having 5 Little Men in a Flying Saucer, or 5 Little Ducks, try a different number to begin with. Maybe 3 Little Men, or 6 Little Ducks. Anything to break the habit of going backwards from 5. This just starts the process, and begins to shift their thinking slightly.
2. Boomerang game on number line
This is one of the best ways of introducing counting back from a given number. You either use a number line, or my favourite way of playing this game is to use a counting stick.
For a full article on the best counting stick activities to play in the early years then go here.
Have some numbers stuck onto the counting stick – about 0 to 5 is a good place to start. Then you swap one of the numbers for a picture of a boomerang. (If you are doing this with a number line, then just blu-tac the boomerang on top of one of the numbers).
Some children will know what a boomerang is, but some may not – so you might have to tell them: ‘It’s a stick that always comes back if you throw it really well.’
In the boomerang game you count up to the boomerang and then you count back from it. So, for example, if you put the boomerang at number four, get them to follow your finger as you point and say, ‘0,1,2,3, (boomerang), 3,2,1,0.’
My favourite way of playing this game is to use a to focus their attention. A simple toy like a finger puppet works well. The toy lands on different numbers which the children say.
3. Dancing whilst counting back
This is great exercise, as well as being fantastic for counting. Put on an up-tempo dance track, and then show the children a single dance move. You are all going to do this dance move, as you count back from a number.
Try something like 3 to start with.
Count and dance! 3,2,1,0. Then repeat 3,2,1,0. Repeat each number a few times. This really helps.
Repeat with different numbers.
4. Jumping backwards on a number line on floor
This is a great visual way of beginning to understand counting back. Have a large number line laid out on the floor.
Get a child to hold a toy. Roll a dice to see what number they start from, e.g. 4. Then jump the toy from 4 to 0, as everyone says the number that their feet land on.
5. Zoom Zoom Zoom Song
Counting down songs are the best way of teaching rote counting, and they can be adapted slightly for counting back from a given number. For example, the words to this one are:
Zoom zoom zoom
We’re going to the moon!
Zoom zoom zoom
We’ll be there very soon!
Then choose a number to count down from (not 5 or 10). Pick the number and have a go. Repeat.
6. With little chants and ditties
Little chants and ditties thrown into your daily routine are good for counting backwards from a number not 5 or 10. For example this is my ‘sitting down chant’, which counts down from 7 and then from 3:
Sit down quick upon the floor!
Sit down quick to be a hero!
Little chants like this are also fantastic for number recognition (check out the best games and tips here).
7. Play Hide and Seek
Games with counting backwards in are fantastic for practising the skill. Try mixing it up and not just counting back from 5 or 10. Roll a dice and see what number to start counting backwards from. Use a number line to help if required.
This is one of my favorite 18 counting backwards games.
This classic game is great for counting backwards from different starting points. You also start and stop counting at different times in hopscotch. This is good for breaking the flow of counting, and stopping it being just a rote counting exercise.
There are so many old classics like this that promote a range of maths skills in outdoor play.
9. Building towers and counting backwards
So many children love playing with lego and other construction toys, and if you can tap into this natural interest and introduce numbers and counting then you are on to a winner.
Have bricks with numbers written on. The children can then build different types of number lines – towers, walls, staircases. Roll a dice and try to move backwards on the number line from that point. This works really well for staircases, as they are jumping back down the stairs.
10. Counting backwards with a puppet
Children are generally entranced by puppets. They are great for behaviour and developing listening and attention.
To find out how to teach all sorts of different maths strategies using puppets, please go to my essential guide about the subject that you can find here.
The puppet could roll a dice or maybe pick a number out of a bag. This is the number you start counting backwards from.
The puppet could also hold something like a wand to point to a number line as you counted back.
Count back with the puppet, and then repeat again! The repeating really helps.
11. Rockets racetrack game – jumping backwards to launch
Homemade board games can be fantastic for counting back. Have a long number line from say about 20 to zero, and some counters that are rockets.
All children start with their counters at 20. Then they roll a dice one at a time, and count back that number of jumps. Say the number you get to. This is good for seeing how the number get smaller as you count back, and also really gets them thinking.
The winner is the rocket that gets back to zero first and can then of course launch!
12. Roll the dice and count back from that number
A nice simple game this one. Roll a dice and count back from that number.
You can use a number line or counting stick to make it more visual and help them to do it.
13. Playdough hand exercises with counting
Hand exercises with playdough are great for fine motor and physical development, and can also be adapted for counting in a range of different ways. Developing fine motor skills has multiple positive benefits for children.
Simply give out a ball of playdough to each child, and put on some pumping music.
Then do some different exercises – slaps, squeezes, pokes etc. As you do them try counting backwards. The children can pick numbers to start from. Simply start from that number and count backwards, slapping and squeezing as you go.
14. Counting back using different voices
They really love this game! I like to use two dice for this. I have a numbers dice, and also a character voices dice. The characters on the dice are things like a ghost, a monster, a vampire, a princess and a robot.
Roll both. You will get a character voice to count in, and a number to count back from. Go for it, and then repeat!
Counting backwards is a crucial life skill, much more useful than counting backwards by rote. It can be taught by a range of fun games and activities. Making learning as visual as possible really helps to start the process. Use number lines, counting sticks, or big number boards on the floor.
Games with puppets or props work really well, as do games with dice. Good luck with the counting backwards!
To find out my favourite 14 strategies for teaching counting upwards from a given number, please follow this link