Mathematics is all around us and is very much part of our everyday life. Making the youngest students aware of this is crucial. Mathematics forms the basis of all scientific disciplines. It is the foundation of physics, chemistry, biology and technology. Through this area of learning students learn to calculate, think critically and logically, and to analyse outcomes. It must therefore be nurtured in the very young and connected to all other areas and aspects of learning.

Teaching should take every opportunity to explain basic mathematical vocabulary in every day, real life situations to help young students understand and use mathematical words for themselves. This will give students the words they need to illustrate their ideas and exploit solutions for themselves.

The most effective way of teaching mathematics is through play-based activities that captivate students’ imagination. This makes mathematics learning fun. Activities should be balanced, so they are sometimes planned by teachers and sometimes chosen by students. When adults use words, including tall, short, long, thick, thin, high, low, narrow, wide, above, below, in-between, in front, behind, heavy, light, full, empty, before, after, students will soon realise that mathematics is everywhere.

  • By playing with shapes students learn basic geometry.
  • By playing simple games where students identify missing objects in a pattern, they learn basic algebraic reasoning.
  • By playing with objects of different width, length or weight, they learn about simple measurement.
  • By placing objects in different locations, students learn to use positional words correctly and develop a clear sense of spacial awareness. Skilled adults will spot mathematical opportunities through regular activities and simple games.

Teaching students to count numbers by rote is important. However, developing the concept of number is more complex. Again, it is important to use a range of toys to illustrate number. For example, counting segments of fruit, wheels on a car, toys in a box, etc. help students understand the relevance of number in real life. Students need to understand that the last number counted is the value of the set. By making sure that number symbols are available for students to handle, they readily make a link between the number of objects and its mathematical symbol. A number line (or track) beyond ten should be displayed at child height. Large numbers on the floor for children to step along in sequence, also support learning. To help students become more familiar with the sequence of numbers adults must consolidate their learning by singing or varying the tone of voice as they count by rote forwards and backwards in ones at first, and then in twos. Give them easily remembered prompts, such as ‘number 3 is like two large tummies’.

Planning a varied range of counting activities ensures students understand basic calculation. By having two sets of objects and counting on from one set to the other set and combining the two groups, teaches early addition. Finding the difference between two sets of objects through one-to-one correspondence teaches early subtraction. Finding one or two more or fewer than a fixed number of objects teaches early addition and subtraction. Make sure appropriate vocabulary, such as, ‘more’ or ‘fewer’ or ‘how many altogether?’ or ‘how many left?’ is used.  Sharing a number of objects equally teaches early division, and by counting groups of the same number of objects altogether teaches early multiplication.

Check out your classroom and outdoor areas and note the extensive range of mathematical opportunities freely available.


  1. Take every opportunity to teach and use mathematical language in real life situations.
  2. Encourage students to explore their own mathematical ideas as they play.
  3. Use a variety of readily available equipment to set up play based problems for students to solve.
  4. Make sure a clear number line is displayed a child-height for easy reference.
  5. Link mathematics to other areas of learning wherever possible.

 By: Gianna Ulyatt


Developing practice, developing practitioners: towards a practice-based theory of professional education by Ball, D.L. & Cohen, D.K. (1999)

Practice Guidance for the early Years Foundation Stage, London: DfES (2007a)

Teaching and Learning Early Number by Caruthers, E. & Worthington, M. (2008)