Maths in early years…

Teaching maths in early years is not as hard as it seems, it is primarily reflecting on how to approach everyday routines, activities and taking advantage of the mathematical learning opportunities behind all of them. When you hear the words “mathematical concepts”, it seems complex but as you research more into it, you realise how simple it is and how relatable it can be to daily practice.

Children are experiencing maths regularly but without the support of a more knowledgeable other, these learning opportunities are going unnoticed.

Children learn by interacting with people or things and as soon as they learn what they need, they will be able to continue to explore the world with that new knowledge and with minimum support. (Vygotsky 1988).
We as adults experience maths in day-to-day activities, whether it is for discussing routines, buying food, solving problems, we are using mathematical language. We wake up in the morning and we have an estimated time that we need to get ready, to have breakfast and head to work. We have sorted out the morning outfit; our lunch is calculated precisely based on our needs (for those who are organised! On that note, organisation is also a mathematical skill). The skills laid out for us are all related to maths. We calculate our every step and we have learnt this through time and trial and error.

As practitioners, we have to help children understand these mathematical concepts and make it relatable to them by presenting it with concrete experiences. Some of these concepts are as simple as time, measurement,
counting and recognising numbers. 

So, how can we introduce these concepts?
Well, it is through intervening at the right time, when there is an opportunity for learning. Time can be discussed at “any time”. You can introduce the terms “today, yesterday and tomorrow” when discussing activities or asking children about their week e.g. “How was music class yesterday?”, “Today we have toast for snack and tomorrow is cereal.”. We can discuss routine when brushing teeth by singing songs or discussing how we should also do this in the “evening”. Time can also be introduced when doing countdowns for special events e.g. introducing a calendar, during tidy up routine or ICT time countdown.

Our role as facilitators is vital in supporting children’s learning of mathematical concepts in the early years of their lives. We need to be in tune with their interest and the learning potential available in everyday activities. Knowing the potential in every opportunity is crucial for recognising teachable moments (Wood, 1976) and knowing when to step in to provide guidance and support.

Children learn maths through first hand experiences and there are many opportunities in a nursery setting. In my setting, I introduced baking activities.

Making and baking activities covers a lot of mathematical learning opportunities. When children are making playdough, they are learning to measure, to follow instructions, to take turns. They are learning numbers e.g. 1
cup of flour, fractions e.g. ½ cup of salt. Children are also learning to estimate and to problem solve, especially when the recipe is not followed correctly e.g., we might need more flour, or less water.

These are great learning opportunities!
Neaum and Tallack (2000) believe that “mathematical terms need to be introduced… and reinforced when the opportunities arise.” As practitioners, we need to be consistent in our approach, we need to reflect, have open
discussions with colleagues and allow ourselves to make mistakes. I do not get it right all the time, but I learn a lot from missed opportunities.

Now, think about your daily routine and reflect on how you can promote children’s learning in maths through everyday task.

Here are a few examples:

Allow children to prepare the setting when they first arrive, this allows for great mathematical learning versus preparing everything for them.

When filling the water tray or sand tray, think of the learning opportunities available. There is learning in measuring, estimating and calculating e.g. how many tubs of water will I need to fill the tray?

When prepping for snack, think about the learning opportunities available for children and have them join you when it is time to order or to prepare. Organise food-shopping trips, this will introduce money,
quantity and ways of paying for things e.g. card, cash, online. When food prepping, have helpers, this will promote learning through cutting fruits in halves, quarters or estimating how many fruits are needed for the day.

Tidy up time, did you say? If it is time to tidy up, pause to think of the learning opportunities available in organising, sorting and arranging in order.

Allow children to learn through everyday tasks. As practitioners, we take the role of facilitators; the sensitive intervener and by taking a step back, we allow children to learn maths through first hand experiences.

Aline Cavani  – Excellence and Equity Practitioner, Aberdeen City

Neaum, S and Tallack, J (1997, 2000) Good Practice in implementing the pre-school Curriculum. Cheltenham: Stanley Thomas Publishers.

Simply Psychology (2018) The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding. [online] Available from: Development.html [Accessed: Feb 17th 2019]

Woods, P. & Jeffrey, B. (1996). Teachable moments: The art of creative teaching in primary schools. Buckingham: Open University Press.