Maths: Testing the water

Use the ‘Big’ books of Julia Jarman to involve children talking spontaneously about mathematical concepts such as full and empty, big and small and near and far.

Judith Harries

The Big Red Bath is the first in a series of ‘Big’ picture books written by Julia Jarman and introduces the characters Ben and Bella and their riotous animal friends.

The author was inspired to write these stories by the birth of her first grandchild. The ‘Big’ books all involve lots of animals trying to squeeze into a small place alongside Ben and Bella and are a great way to explore topics such as opposites: full/empty, big/small, up/down, and near/far and lots of aspects of number, size and shape.

Playing and exploring

  • Children count and compare the size of different animals as they play
  • They have a go at making up simple number sentences about the animals
  • They retell the stories using different props

Big Red Bath

Share the story. How many animals are in the bath by the end? Count how many arms and legs are in the bath! Provide them with a bowl or toy bath in the water tray, along with a variety of plastic animals to retell the story. Add lots of bubbles to the water and be prepared for a fair amount of splashing! Can the tiny duck fit into the bath? Will the big hippopotamus fit into the bath? Compare the sizes of all the animals in the book. Encourage counting as the children see how many animals they can fit into the bath tub. What will happen if they take one or more animals out of the bath? Help children to write simple number sentences.

Big Yellow Digger

Share the story. Construct a big yellow digger using large cardboard boxes, yellow paint, yellow cushions or fabric and invite the children to sit in or around the model as you read the book. Add lots of soft toy animals as the story progresses.

Place lots of yellow construction toys in the sand tray for children to play with and add plastic animals, including a dinosaur, so they can retell the story. Encourage them to dig holes and tunnels in the sand to hide the animals for each other to find.

Big Blue Train

Share the story. Invite them to join in with the repeated sound words that the train makes. Build a train out of pairs of chairs, large cardboard circular wheels, sheets of blue cardboard, and invite children to sit in the train and act out the story. Provide soft toy animals to pile into the train alongside the children.

Water play day

On a sunny day, set up lots of water play activities, inside and out, using the water tray, washing up bowls, paddling pools, etc. Encourage lots of capacity play in the water or sand tray. Provide a variety of different sized containers. Talk about relative size and sort them into order. Which is the biggest container? How many small spoons does it take to fill each bottle or pot? Invite children to estimate a number before they carry out the activity. How accurate was their estimate? Add some bubbles and toy animals so children can re-enact some of the stories and make up some of their own.

Big Bouncy Bed

Share the story. Look at the pictures of the planets in outer space. Help children to learn their names and find out the order they are in relation to the sun. Make up some new adventures using the Big Bouncy Bed as a mode of transport. Where would the children like to go next on the bed?

School trips

Read Class Two at the Zoo. Point out the recurring pattern in the story. The children saw….but they didn't see…..! Provide a snake puppet, or make your own (see below), and let children take turns to act out the part of the anaconda. How many children (and grown-ups) does he manage to eat?

Fussy Freda

This is a hilarious, cautionary tale about being fussy over food that many early year's children and their parents will relate to. Fussy Freda is so fussy that she begins to shrink and becomes so small the family cat eats her up! Talk about likes and dislikes of food.

Active learning

  • Children order objects according to size
  • They concentrate on finding out about animals from Australia
  • They play Sardines and have fun seeing how many children can fit into a small space

Ask children to order the plastic animals according to size from small to large. Which is the smallest/largest animal?

Find out about Australian animals, as featured in the Big books: wombat, kangaroo, possum, platypus and kangaroo. Look at images in books or online and compare with other more familiar wild animals.

Try bouncing on a trampoline. Use the ‘boing, boing, boing, boing! Mind your head’ refrain from the Big Bouncy Bed. Ask children to count how many bounces they can do on the trampoline. Who can keep going for the longest? Use a stopwatch to time the bouncing.


Play a game of sardines with a small group of children. This is a sort of reverse hide and seek. Ask one child to go and hide. The others look for them and when they find them join in hiding in the same hiding place. This will most likely result in children squeezing into a small space, squashed just like sardines in a tin, or characters in one of the ‘Big’ stories. Make sure you count how many children hide in each place just in case you break a record!

Creating and thinking critically

  • Children create new sound effects and refrains for the digger and train
  • They create a snake puppet and measure its length
  • They mix and create some new foods and recipes for Fussy Freda

Judder, judder, jigger

Can the children join in with the repeated refrain ‘Brum, brum! Brum, brum! Judder, judder, jigger’? Talk about the bucket on the digger that goes up and down to move earth and other items. Let children use their arms as digger buckets going up and down each time it happens in the story. Ask them to create some new sound effects for the big yellow digger and the big blue train. Use some of the repeated refrains in the books as inspiration.

Help them to make anaconda snake puppets using long socks, googly eyes and a forked snake tongue cut out of felt or green paper. Ask them to measure the snakes using tape measures or metre sticks. Who has created the longest snake? Children can act out the story from Class Two at the Zoo using small world play people for their giant snake to eat, counting as they go!

Have fun in the tuff spot or sand tray creating food for Fussy Freda to try. Provide lots of dried herbs, mild spices, dry rice, lentils, beans and pasta, sand, flour and small amounts of water. Use measuring spoons, weighing scales and different-sized containers so children can develop awareness of weighing and capacity as they play. Can the children invent some food that even Fussy Freda will want to try?

EYFS Early Learning Goals

Using repeated refrains in several of these books will develop children's ability to listen and understand stories and text. When they find out about animals from another country they will observe ‘similarities and differences’ and talk about changes. Making food for Fussy Freda and stuffing socks to create snake puppets will allow children to ‘use and explore a variety of materials, tools and techniques’.

Useful resources

  • A collection of books by Julia Jarman
  • Water tray, toy bath, washing up bowl, bubbles, lots of plastic animals, large cardboard boxes, yellow paint, yellow cushions and fabric, soft toys, sand tray, yellow construction toys, plastic dinosaur, chairs, cardboard wheels, blue cardboard, snake puppet, small trampoline, stopwatch, long socks, googly eyes, green felt, scissors, tape measures, metre sticks, dried herbs and spices, dry rice, lentils, beans and pasta, measuring spoons, weighing scales, different-sized containers, spoons.

Key leaning points

  • Help children to count reliably from 0 - 20
  • Encourage them to use everyday language to compare size
  • Use the activities to explore capacity with liquids and solids
  • Develop understanding of measurement and opposites

Key words:

  • Size, big, small, full, empty, up, down, fit, repeat, count

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