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Developing Early
Years Maths

Developing Early Years Maths...

Maths in the early years should be approached primarily through practical activities that children will be able to relate to and understand.

Developing Early Years Maths
Children who 'do' maths through first-hand experiences are most likely to develop confidence and understanding in the subject.

Much of what children experience in activities will involve an element of maths.

This may be something that is planned, for example measuring sunflowers to find out which is tallest, or it may arise incidentally, perhaps when a child is sharing out birthday sweets.

The childcare worker needs to be aware of the mathematical potential of any situation and be prepared to extend and develop early years maths through interactions with the children.

What Is Maths?

Maths is all around us and children have many mathematical experiences in their everyday lives before they begin the formal study of maths.

Maths is much more than figures and formulae.

Below are some brief details about each of the areas of early years maths and some examples of activities that are linked to them.


Children need to be able to recognise shapes in both two and three dimensions.

They need to learn about the properties of shapes, for example that cylinders roll, cubes have right angles, how they fit together and the space that they occupy.

Activities: identifying shapes in the environment; drawing around shapes, sorting junk and modelling with it; making shapes with playdough or clay; building with bricks.

Sets and Sorting

Children need to be able to sort objects into sets and explain why they belong there.

This contributes to the development of their logical abilities.

Activities: sorting with structured sorting apparatus and with collections of shells, beads etc.; sorting for colour, for shape, for more complex attributes, for example, making a set of animals that live on farms. Older children will begin to record their findings on diagrams and in other ways.


Pattern occurs both in number and in shape. It is an important mathematical concept that lays the foundation for algebra.

The essential features of a pattern are that it is regular and predictable.

Activities: looking for pattern in the environment, for example in brick walls, on floor tiles, on fabrics and also in nature, in animal markings and in plant life; making patterns with beads bricks and other materials including painting, printing and collage; copying and continuing patterns with bricks, beads and peg boards and also using computer software.


Numeracy includes counting, estimating, recording numbers and the four rules of number - addition, substraction, multiplication and division - and also simple fractions.

Activities: taking every opportunity to count, for example children in the class, coats on the pegs, bottles in the crate; matching one thing to another, children to chairs, saucers to cups; linking number symbols to groups of objects; dividing apples into halves, quarters and sharing them out; using real objects to add, take away, share. As they develop an understanding of number, children will begin to recognise numerals and use symbols to record their work.


As for numeracy, but additionally children will become familiar with coins and understand about equivalence, that is one coin may be worth the same as, say, ten other coins.

Activities: making shops in the classroom and buying and selling; counting real money, for example milk or trip money; handling play money and sorting coins; making a collection of price tags, receipts etc.


Children need to understand that time can be measured and to be familiar with how we measure time.

At about 7 years, we expect children to be able to read the time from both analogue and digital clock faces.

They also need to be able to sort events into past, present and future.

Activities: talking about daily routines; filling in daily calendars; using all kinds of timers to measure, for example, how many jumps in a minute; using movable clock faces. Stories such as 'Sleeping Beauty' deal with the passing of time and can be helpful to children's understanding of this concept.


Children need to be able to use non-standard (a book weighs as much as three apples) and standard (grams and kilograms, pounds and ounces) measures.

They need to be able to apply the concept of equivalence (equal weight) and be able to make comparisons based on weight.

Activities: practical experience of holding things and talking about 'heavy' and 'light', then 'heavier than, lighter than'; cooking activities using non-standard (cups, spoons) or standard measures; using balance scales to weigh first with non-standard, then with standard measures (balance scales provide clear evidence of equivalence that the children can see); investigation of other types of scales.

Length and Area

Children need to be able to estimate and measure length and area using non-standard as well as standard measures.

They need to be able to select the most appropriate unit of measurement for the task.

Activities: measuring with hand spans, strides, pencils; measuring using standard measures, rulers, tapes, trundle wheels; measuring and making charts of height - who is tallest?, who is smallest? - ordering smallest to tallest, tallest to smallest; drawing around hands, feet, children on squared paper and counting the squares; covering box models with paper and estimating how much is needed.

Capacity and Volume

This is a difficult concept for young children to grasp. They need to understand that capacity and volume can be measured using non-standard as well as standard measures.

They need to be able to compare containers of different sizes and shapes and to make comparisons about their capacity.

Activities: filling buckets, beakers, containers with sand or water. Posing problems - how many cups fill a bucket? Using standard measures to compare the capacity of other containers; 'real life' questions - how many beakers can you fill from a squash bottle?

How Can You Help Developing Early Years Maths?

  • Encourage and explain. Many children take a while to grasp new ideas.
  • Talk to the children about their work. Introduce mathematical language, 'more than, less than' etc. Name shapes accurately.
  • Use everyday experiences to reinforce mathematical learning, for example counting stairs, sharing biscuits, laying the table.
  • Be aware of the mathematical potential of activities and experiences and develop children's understanding.
  • Observe progress on an individual level and use this to plan the next step.

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