Best practice: Maths through movement and active play

Tania Swift
Saturday, October 2, 2021

In this final article in the Movement and active play series, Tania Swift explores ways in which mathematical learning can be supported every day through active ways, whilst also instilling a life-long interest in maths.

Tania Swift, early years physical development specialist and author


I have always been considered to be a creative and active person, and by no means an academic. As a young child, I would spend most of my free time swimming in a river, on my bicycle, up a tree or making clothes for my dolls.

As I became a teenager I would while away my time playing hairdresser to all of my friends, making my own clothes or creating mixtapes, well it was the 80s! The only subjects I found stimulating at school were the creative ones, however I excelled at maths.

This was such a mystery to me, until I started working in early years and discovered that movement, active play, exploring, discovering and being creative highly supports mathematical learning. Therefore, giving young children the freedom to develop mathematical skills through movement and play can underpin a life-long love of maths and provide a solid foundation for this area of learning.


Natural development

When children are engaged in child-directed play it is important to understand how they will be acquiring maths skills during this time. If you are aware of these learning opportunities, you will be able to support a child's development and extend their learning by identifying teachable moments, asking questions and using mathematical language.

Ways in which children naturally learn and develop their maths skills:

  • Building a den requires figuring out what size it should be, the measurements of the structure, how many sides it should have and the height. They will also need to identify the number of children in the group and how big the den should be to accommodate them all.
  • When children are moving in, out, over, under and around a climbing structure, they will be developing spatial awareness. It will also help them to develop their understanding of distance, direction and, ultimately, how structures fit together around them. During this activity, they may also be problem solving and using their positional abilities to identify how to achieve their goal.
  • During cooking and baking, children will need to weigh, use measuring containers, count out the amount of ingredients required and share out portions.
  • When constructing towers and bridges with open ended resources, children will be problem solving, learning about sizes and shapes, and strategically working out the right quantities for their structures to work.
  • Playing with water, mud, sand, gravel and stones in order to create different shapes, and learn concepts such as addition, division and volume as they manipulate the materials.
  • Subitising will be more meaningful through nature, such as how many bugs are on that rock, how many purple flowers are there, or how many white stones have you collected?


Numbers and counting

Counting is an important skill for young children to develop. However, doing so without context may benefit the development of their mathematical language, but offer very little meaning. When children miss a number when counting or do not count in sequence, it is because they are trying to remember what they were taught, rather than understanding what they are doing.

We can provide many engaging activities that can support the learning and understanding of numbers and their sequence:

  • Action rhymes with or without numbers help children to understand patterns and sequencing
  • Active stories that include numbers help to make sense of numbers by putting them into context
  • Quantity games, and matching groups or objects and people with the same and different quantities (more, fewer, half, quarter, equal parts, etc.), provide real-world opportunities to learn.
  • Splitting or dividing objects or groups of people into smaller parts teaches subitising, multiplication, division, size and groups.
  • Keeping score is an effective way to make sense of sequencing, addition, higher and lower.
  • Personalisation of numbers through games, for example, how many girls are in the group, jump into the hula hoop if you are older than 3, etc., will support the understanding of numbers.
  • Role-play, such as shopkeeper and cooking, will put numbers into a real-world context, providing children with relatable, real-life experiences.
  • Active ten frames, where the frame is large and numbers are represented by children themselves or large objects required to be moved.


Spatial reasoning

The updated EYFS does not include an early learning goal for spatial reasoning skills, however it is intrinsic to mathematical learning as it is our understanding of how objects, and ourselves, move and interact in relation to the physical space around us.

This skill helps children to understand mathematical concepts such as volume, areas and space. It allows children to reproduce patterns, sequences and shapes and to understand how 3D objects interact and move. Spatial reasoning skills also play a crucial role in numerical reasoning and are vital for combining Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM)1. When children are exploring the environment, engaged in body awareness activities, judging distance and size, building and constructing, or fitting themselves and others into a space, they are developing their spatial reasoning skills.

Asking questions and discussing how things work with children, such as how an object is larger than another object, whether an object should be on top or underneath, and then giving them the space to physically explore these manipulations and changes, will significantly support the development of their spatial reasoning skills, as they will not only be seeing what happens, but also understand why this is happening.

Children will develop their spatial reasoning skills when moving and playing, and we can further extend their development through adult-led activities, such as:

  • Movement to music using height, weight and through the need to avoid bumping into each other.
  • There is an old joke, ‘What are the ten things you can always count on? – your fingers.’ In this case, it is certainly not a joke, as encouraging children to use their fingers to count on and measure with is an effective tool to start with. It is also useful to provide real-world objects, such as sticks, leaves, rocks, socks, shoes and pencils for measuring as they may make more sense for children.
  • Building and construction activities will require problem solving, understanding of sizes, height, space, 2D and 3D shapes, as well as an understanding of how objects fit together, numbers of objects needed, height of objects, and much more, to complete their creation.
  • Activities that require the use of positional language support the understanding of direction and mathematical language. This language includes terms such as under, on top of, forward, backward, sideways, zigzag, as well as whole, half, quarter and three-quarter.


Mathematically rich environment

This will be an environment where children can learn how objects fit together, the relationship between numbers, counting through natural found objects, and more, during child-directed play. However, an enabling environment is not only about the space, but also the people in it. Children will have positive relationships with others and their learning and development will be positively impacted by them. Therefore, if you are not much of a fan of maths, reflect on how you can change your personal feelings towards this area of learning. Perhaps, instead of seeing maths as algebra and geometry that you struggled with at school, think about the beautiful patterns in nature, the way leaves and seeds are arranged and how we may use addition and subtraction and other mathematical concepts when being creative. It is then possible to share the joys of maths with children.

Become a learner, alongside the children. Show curiosity, question, listen, learn and make mistakes happily. This will model problem solving, confidence to explore and experiment, and the process of active learning for children; placing you alongside them as a collaborative and enthusiastic life-long learner.


Problem solving and risk taking

You may think of physical risks when you hear the term ‘Risk Taking’, however children will also be challenging their emotional and mental abilities when taking risks. They may need to problem solve how to do something they have not done before or that feels out of their comfort zone, risking making a mistake or getting something wrong. When trying to work out how to climbing higher or creating their wonderful bridge, children will need to make use of many mathematical processes such as:

  • How many.
  • More or less.
  • Higher or lower.
  • Bigger or smaller.


When required, we will use mathematical language to support a child to problem solve or identify their previous achievement and next step with questions such as:

  • ‘How high do you want to go?’
  • ‘Will it be higher or lower than the last time you climbed that?’
  • ‘Do you think you may need more rocks to hold the bridge?’


During play, children will explore a problem, try a solution, if the solution fails, they will reflect, on their own or with support from an adult or peer, and then try a new solution until they have solved the problem.  This is the basis for learning in early years, and beyond, and is also an important process for mathematical reasoning. Hence, providing children with many opportunities to problem solve, with the understanding that making mistakes is ok and part of the process, will hold them in good stead for enjoying learning for the rest of their lives.



A huge amount of mathematical learning will be taking place when children are moving and playing, as well as a sense of confidence instilled with your support, allowing children to overcome barriers through risk taking, challenging themselves, problem solving and thinking critically. In his opinion piece on the definition of ‘Play’, Jan Dubiel2 states that ‘we know that children's learning is a very serious business’. With that in mind, the next time you see a child climbing a tree, building a den or having a great time with water play, remind yourself that their neural pathways are on fire and numbers are tumbling around their brains.



1. Spatial Reasoning: Why Math Talk is About More Than Numbers,  DREME, Stanford -

2. Defining the word ‘Play’ by Jan Dubiel, EYE -

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