Solve maths problems using creative powers

Invite children to solve problems to do with shape, space and measure by weaving them into exciting narratives featuring favourite superheros and popular picture book characters.

Critical thinking is all about logic and reasoning. It is the ability to classify, sequence, compare, to understand patterns, to plan, and to be able to see the links between cause and effect. Creative thinking is developing the skills required to create something original. It begins with curiosity and imagination – both of which come naturally to most children.

The EYFS states that ‘creativity and critical thinking are important in all areas of learning and are as integral to mathematics as they are to painting or dance’.

In order to facilitate children's mathematical development we need to provide problem solving opportunities that are relevant and engaging with just the right level of challenge. This will require practitioners to have a solid knowledge of each individual child, supported by observations.

In order to facilitate children's mathematical development we need to provide problem solving opportunities that are engaging, relevant and with just the right level of challenge.

Imagination is important for maths

Remember that playing and exploring, as characteristics of effective learning, are just as important for grasping maths concepts as they are for other areas of the EYFS.

Through playing and exploring with these activities, children will visualise and imagine. Help them to develop their own ideas and consider the suggestions of those put forward by others. These activities are spread across the areas of mathematics: number, shape, space and measure.

Superhero rescue

Laminate and cut out a few A5 sized pictures of various superheroes. Punch two or three holes around the edges of each picture and link a padlock into each hole. The idea is that children set each hero free by unlocking the padlocks. In order to do this they must find the right keys. Using marker pen write a number on every padlock, and a corresponding number of spots on each key ring. For instance, the key ring with three spots has the key that opens the padlock with number ‘3’.

Giant clothes

Read The Smartest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Each day provide a different outline of an item of the giant's clothing (or make a replica from papier mache or fabric if you are adventurous).

Set up opportunities for making comparisons which is key to critical thinking

Ask children to help each other to find things are bigger/smaller/longer/shorter/wider/narrower than the outline.

Thirsty work

Watch Peppa Pig, Season 3, Episode 9, Fun Run in which Daddy Pig runs a race and becomes very thirsty. Can children remember a time when they felt thirsty? What did they want most in the world at that moment? In the water tray provide three or four cups of varying capacities and a few measuring jugs. Say that Daddy Pig is very thirsty after his race and ask them to find which cup he should use. Make the challenge trickier by providing a tall cup which may or may not hold more water than a shorter, wider cup.

Sticky problem

Outside, provide children with a set of sticks all roughly the same length and set a shape challenge. For example, how many triangles can you make with six sticks? How many squares with eight sticks? For example, they could make predictions before creating the shapes.

Helping children to stay on task

Helping children to concentrate and keep on trying is all about the characteristic of effective leaning – active learning. This is achieved when the practitioner ensures that each challenge is differentiated and extended as appropriate.

So keep children on task and drive their learning forward by gently reminding them of the initial question, and by asking them to say what they are doing and what they notice. Observe their learning in order to understand their individual interests and how to extend their thinking in future.

Here are some ideas:

  • Superhero Rescue – change the problems on the keyrings, for example, write 3+2 to match padlock ‘5’, or give a more/fewer than challenge such as ‘<3’ to match padlock ‘1’ or ‘2’.
  • Giant Clothes – can children find anything the same length as that item of clothing? Can they measure

Support light bulb moments

Help them to engage in sustained, shared thinking by brainstorming with others, elaborating on their own suggestions and those put forward by others until they reach a ‘light bulb’ moment.

Creating and thinking critically underpin all the activities here.

Children explore cause and effect: if they solve the maths problem then they free the superhero; if they find the cup with the largest capacity then thirsty Daddy Pig has more water. Help them to use reasoning skills to build triangles and squares in the ‘Sticky Problem’ activity by, for example, working out that they will need three sticks to create one triangle because a triangle has three sides.

The extension part of this activity in which they create challenges for others requires them to visualise the shapes before they have actually made them.

Children need to make comparisons – a key aspect of thinking critically – when measuring the giant's clothes against other objects that they find. Sustained shared thinking and collaboration occur when they work together to find objects to compare to the giant's clothes, and to find the best cup for Daddy Pig. For children's learning journeys jot down notes when you witness examples of creative and critical thinking, and take photographs to annotate.

EYFS Early Learning Goals

Encourage children to build narratives around the superhero rescues. Children might do this spontaneously, but if not prompt with questions: how did the superhero end up in trouble? Who was responsible? What happened to the villain in the end? The Smartest Giant in Town lends itself well to PSHE because the giant puts the needs of others before himself. Ask children how the giant helped the various animals. Can they think of people who help them in their lives? How can they show their appreciation?

Enabling environment

Maths learning goes on throughout the setting across all areas of the curriculum. There needs to be plenty of opportunities for children to investigate number, shape, space and measure through both adult led and free play. This way they can start to make connections, find patterns and apply what they know to solve problems. Provide a range of accessible, well maintained resources.

There could be objects to sort, order and thread – pasta, buttons, pegs, pebbles and cotton reels. Story books which involve maths or number rhymes might be displayed with props for role-play. Providing access to a variety of maths puzzles and games, construction toys, building blocks, stacking cups, containers of different shapes and sizes, 2D and 3D shapes all aid creative and critical maths the length/width of the clothing using cubes/handspans/paces?

  • Thirsty Work – provide a greater selection of cups to compare, or cups with very similar capacities.
  • Sticky Problem – children could set up challenges for each other by collecting sticks themselves and asking a friend how many triangles/squares they can make. In this way children will have to consider the problem in reverse!

Key points

  • Make resources available which enable children to make connections, find patterns and apply what they know to solve problems
  • Encourage children to explore cause and effect, engaging them with existing interests such as superheros
  • Set up opportunities for making comparisons, which is key to thinking critically
  • Think carefully how problem solving opportunities are at an appropriate level of challenge for individual children. Consider how they can be differentiated
  • Observe how children extend their play to set their own challenges

Useful resources

  • Maths puzzles and games
  • Construction toys
  • Building blocks
  • Stacking cups
  • Containers of different shapes and sizes
  • 2D and 3D shapes
  • Beads, buttons, pebbles
  • Fabric; papiér maché

Recommended buys:

  • Tactile counting stones

  • Active number

  • Natural sorting tray

  • 5-frame tray (All the above from Yellow Door:

  • Superpower Superhero Set from Early Years Recources:


  • Children Thinking Mathematically: PSRN essential knowledge for early year's practitioners, The National Strategies Early Years: Learning and Development:

  • Creativity and Critical Thinking, Every Child Matters, Change for Children, EYFS:


  • Messy Maths: A playful, Outdoor Approach for Early Years by Juliet Robertson (Independent Thinking Press: Crown House Publishing
  • Creating and Thinking Critically (Learning and Teaching in the Early Years) by Di Chilvers (Practical Pre-School Books)
  • The Building Blocks of Early Maths: Bringing Key Concepts to Life for 3–6-Year-Olds by Elaine Bennett and Jenny Weidner (Routledge)

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