Primed for mathematics

Continuing our exploration of the prime and specific areas of learning, this month we focus on the specific area of maths and discuss how we can support the children in our settings.


Once I had finished writing my previous article on literacy, I started to stress about this one. I do not normally stress about writing articles, so why panic about one on mathematics? Simple really – I struggled with maths at school and to this day I do not have a maths GCSE. Despite this, I have managed a household budget, ran a childminding setting, obtained a degree and taught numerous subjects, including childminding accounts.

However, this ‘fear’ of maths is deep rooted, and part of my hesitation is because I do not want to mislead, or promote poor learning opportunities for children. Luckily, I came across a blog by June O’Sullivan, which reassured me that I do understand the mathematical needs of early years children.

I hope to support readers to set up environments that promote maths and mathematical language through play and routines, and will consider it a bonus if I reassure readers, who like me, have a deep rooted (but often hidden) fear of maths. As always, we need to start with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), to check what Ofsted expects. For Numbers, it says:

‘Children count reliably with numbers from one to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number. Using quantities and objects, they add and subtract two single-digit numbers and count on or back to find the answer. They solve problems, including doubling, halving and sharing.’

Do not panic if your three-year-olds are unable count to 20, or achieve any other aspect of this Early Learning Goal (ELG) because only a few three or four-year-olds who are mathematically minded can. The terminology on
page 33 of Development Matters (for 30-50m), is very reassuring: ‘Shows an interest’; ‘Beginning to’; ‘some’ and ‘sometimes’ – in other words, children are only expected to have started to grasp mathematical concepts.

As I intend to cover the area of mathematics as one, we need to check the ELG’S for ‘Shape, Space and Measure’, and the reassuring terminology, before moving onto practical suggestions:

‘Children use everyday language to talk about size, weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money to compare quantities and objects and to solve problems. They recognise, create and describe patterns. They explore characteristics of everyday objects and shapes and use mathematical language to describe them.’

In my experience, maths is everywhere, and the average childminding day will abound with opportunities to learn mathematical concepts.

Everyday routines and activities Use numbers involved with time, for example: ‘In 10 minutes, we will be going to school’; ‘Lunch will be at 12 o’clock’ – show children the numbers on your watch or your phone, saying the number names out loud. Remote controls are a great way of giving numbers a purpose and are reinforced by the numbers appearing on the TV screen.

Use your watch or phone to time the children to run around the garden or to do an obstacle course, if the children are interested – record their times on a chart and, over time, check to see if they are getting faster.

When out walking, look at numbers on houses, lamp posts, post boxes, buses and car number plates. Set the children a challenge to spot a particular number, or to find all the numbers up to 5 or 10. I used to play silly games on our walks, such as ‘jump if you see a number 7’, or ‘clap if you see a number 3’. You could count the number of steps between objects – and remember the skill of estimating – ‘how many steps do you think are between these trees?’

Inside and outside environments will provide opportunities to use mathematical language, such as too many, too few, one more, one less, double and halve, as well as those connected to weight and length.

Observe shapes with the children, name them, work out which is biggest and which is smallest; count the number of sides and angles using correct terminology, remembering there are 2D and 3D shapes.

A popular activity in my setting was finding whatever I suggested, so shapes, or a certain number of things with the same aspect. I photographed the displays the children made to aid reflection on similarities and differences, as well as evidence for Ofsted.

I found that asking the children closed questions, such as, ‘how many buttons on your coat?,’ were not effective, but asking if they could find two blue square things, or seven oval stones worked. As well as children checking they had the right number of things by counting them, you could try miscounting on purpose to see if they spot your mistake! Model counting again – checking answers is an important skill to learn.

Cooking offers many opportunities for maths, especially if you use mathematical language. Eggs are brilliant – you have full eggs, egg shells, and spaces in egg cartons, offering opportunities for ‘one more’, one less. Ask the children, ‘have we put two or three eggs in these cakes?’ and suggest checking via empty shells.

Written numbers can be found in recipe books, on packets, and the oven. Eating the end results (as with all food related activities) offers more opportunities for estimating, for sharing equally – including discussing ‘one left over’.

Talk about cutting food into quarters, or whatever is needed, and observe how these shapes change if you cut them into pieces, rectangles into squares, circles into semi-circles, and so on.

Shopping is another excellent mathematical opportunity, from using the internet to check times the shop is open, to checking price labels, to weighing fruit and veg, to handling money, and more. Shopping and cooking experiences can be extended via role-play following the lead of the children and the things they want to recreate. Provide as many real or play resources as possible to increase opportunities for mathematical language. Builders or architect role-play with real tape measures and clipboards is another excellent way to include maths in everyday activities.

Spatial awareness – of themselves and objects – is very important because children need to judge distances and speed, using appropriate language, like fast and slow, stop and go, either on foot or on a ride-on toy, as being able to move around safely is a key skill.

Mathematical environments

I suggest using plenty of open-ended resources; things like pebbles, sticks, milk bottle tops and similar, to promote sorting and making patterns; different size and shape containers for filling and emptying, stacking and nesting; wooden blocks for building, patterns, stacking, transporting, describing (and more); collections of things, such as teddies, cars, chunky beads and anything else the child is interested in, so they can sort by colour, size, shape, number, as well as sharing, estimating and describing.

Provide tape measures to discover whether one thing is smaller or bigger than another; and scales for an awareness of heavy and light, because big is not always heavy – children in my care loved the balance scales.

My suggestions are not comprehensive, so add anything you think will support children’s mathematical development. One essential component though is you, the adult! You need to model appropriate language, support thinking processes and be ready to add to, or change, the environment as needed.

Although I had some, I found number lines and specialist maths resources were not essential because numbers and mathematical opportunities are everywhere.

Use books with mathematical-based stories, recite number rhymes regularly, and extend by using role-play, puppets and hand actions to bring alive positional language, such as ‘over’, ‘under’, ‘on top’, ‘under’, in stories like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, or rhymes, such as 5 current buns or 1,2,3,4,5 Once I caught a fish alive, for counting forwards and backwards.

If we want our children to develop a love of maths we need to make it fun, make it part of everyday life and use every opportunity to include mathematical language and mathematical-based activities.

Although there are proposed changes to the ELG’s, in particular, in the area of numeracy, children will still need to explore all the areas described in this article in preparation for meeting these proposed, or indeed any other changes.


Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!