31st January 2023 Early Years Foundation Stage All Posts

Numbers are Everywhere – Numeracy in the Early Years

NSPCC Number Day takes place on Friday 3rd February, and as we look forward to celebrating the importance of mathematics in education, we wanted to discuss teaching numeracy in the early years. Today, Chloe Webster joins us with some tips on how to teach children numeracy in the early years.

Numbers are Everywhere

In early years, the concept of ‘teaching’ mathematics can cause many of us anxiety or cause us to overthink our provisions and play experiences in order to adequately ‘teach’ maths to our youngest children. However, as with everything in early years, it need not be so complicated! 

Numeracy and everything that encapsulates Early Years mathematics really is everywhere within our settings; throughout our provision, in the outdoor area and whilst exploring the natural local area when on walks or visits outside of the setting. 

We just need to recognise this and use these opportunities to our advantage to facilitate and support even our youngest children in exploring the early signs and opportunities to explore maths through play.  For children in Early Years, learning about maths is not just about numbers and sums, for children of this age mathematics incorporates everything from numerals, shape, space and measure. 

It is often thought, mainly as a result of adults’ own perception and fears surrounding maths and numbers, that there needs to be formal teaching opportunities for children to fully grasp, learn and understand mathematical concepts, but this is absolutely not the case. 

Our provisions are the perfect opportunities for mathematical teaching and exploration and every day, simple activities and experiences can facilitate and support an incredible range of mathematical learning opportunities. 

From counting cups at snack time, talking about the shapes of our food at lunch time, using language of quantities during water/messy play and thinking critically and moving and rotating puzzles pieces as they attempt an inset board puzzle; these are all complex concepts in essence, but equally readily available opportunities within every early years provision. 

As with all aspects of children’s learning and development, the physical environment in which a child is exposed to is just as important as the language they hear and so an exciting and stimulating learning environment that promotes mathematical development should provide children with opportunities to stack, build, count, measure, weigh and mark-make as they count and build.

In addition to these simple examples of daily opportunities and experiences, we must also not underestimate the value of language and conversation and the holistic approach to learning and development that we should all be focusing on to support children’s learning. 

By merely using mathematical language during day to day conversations and communication with children, we again are providing early opportunities for exploring mathematical language to compliment the experiences we provide within the environment, children will very quickly adopt this mathematical language when exposed to it in a fun and exciting way and when it is presented as ‘the norm’ during simple conversations with supportive and knowledgeable adults. 

As with any type of teaching and/or learning experiences, our role as adults is primarily to facilitate opportunities, we often lean towards ‘formal’ teaching of key areas such as maths and literacy, but we are at risk of overcomplicating these and projecting our own anxieties on these key areas onto children subconsciously. 

The beauty of early years is that any learning opportunities and experiences can be adapted in a diverse range of ways in order to support and incorporate children’s individual needs and interests, making their learning significantly more meaningful than more traditional, formal approaches. 

For example, placing number stickers on top of cars in the small world area to encourage recognition of numerals, to number lines and tape measures alongside the construction area to encourage measuring, or a variety of different sized funnels in the water tray to encourage the use of quantity related language, any mathematical concept can be easily incorporated into children’s every day play experiences and provision. 

As with communication and literacy, the earlier a child is exposed to opportunities and experiences involving mathematical skills, language and materials, the earlier their skills and understanding will develop. To enable children to develop mathematical skills and language, children must also have access to a diverse range of opportunities to develop and practise the different skills they will need to develop an understanding of numbers, shape, space and measure, which should all be readily available within the provision. 

Adults can be guilty of over-complicating children’s play and learning experiences and this is often the case when we consider the skills we think a child should learn and sometimes we overlook or underestimate how even the simplest of skills can be considered and attributed as ‘mathematical skills’. For example, simple tidying-up routines can support children in categorising objects according to their properties in addition to providing opportunities for problem-solving in relation to shape, space and measure as they explore how to fit items back into a box or container. 

It is also important to remember that patterns are a significant aspect of ‘shape’ and so children need to be exposed to an array of patterns, as how will they learn to make comparisons/differentiate between different patterns if they have limited exposure? A simple idea such as creating an interactive book full of a variety of different types of patterns and colours that children can access freely and discuss and explore, is an easy yet beneficial addition to any area within the provision. 

Children’s early learning is a holistic process as we know, and so if a child is exposed to a significant amount of language in general, they will of course acquire language skills at a significantly faster rate than if they are exposed to very little language. This is also the case for mathematical language; if children are not exposed to or hear adults and other children using language related to height, weight, capacity, depth, time and money – how will they ever learn what these words mean and how to explore these mathematical concepts in their play?

It is our role as practitioners, adults and the children’s knowledgeable others to facilitate, provide and role-model mathematical concepts, language and learning, which as discussed, is significantly easier to do than we sometimes anticipate. 

Numbers, maths, shapes, patterns and other mathematical concepts are everywhere, in our buildings, in our outdoor spaces and within our routines, it is how we utilise and promote these opportunities that make maths more meaningful for children in the early years. 

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