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Ways to support children's maths understand from a very young age.

Why numbers are important

Children need to develop a positive attitude to maths and not be afraid to make a mistake.

Children need your help to explore, experiment and discover. Repeating maths activities will develop their understanding of mathematical concepts. Children will begin to understand regular daily routines, like snack time and going-home time, and how to use numbers to describe things.

Encourage children to use numbers ‘in context’, using numbers in practice, not just in theory. This deepens their understanding. Children can then apply their knowledge and experiment. They can test their new understanding of maths by using numbers in context through the day in real-life situations.

Research shows toddlers engage spontaneously with maths during nearly half the time available for free play.

Children will develop their own working theories by using numbers in everyday contexts. They will learn to communicate these to others and over time remember mathematical concepts.

Maths is used for counting and quantities, but children need to develop the other ways numbers are used. For example, for measurements, putting things in order and understanding values.

Look for meaningful maths opportunities to aid learning and progress over time. You should try to find the maths content in all the other areas of learning, if possible.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of numbers in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

Developing a strong grounding in number is essential so that all children develop the necessary building blocks to excel mathematically.

Children should be able to count confidently, develop a deep understanding of the numbers to 10, the relationships between them and the patterns within those numbers.

By providing frequent and varied opportunities to build and apply this understanding - such as using manipulatives, including small pebbles and tens frames for organising counting - children will develop a secure base of knowledge and vocabulary from which mastery of mathematics is built.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 9, childminder EYFS, page 10, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

You should make the most of the opportunities for maths in all that the children do. This means taking advantage of opportunities to use numbers where they naturally arise. Numbers can be found in most situations: indoors, outdoors and in the community, like on bus stops or street numbers.

Encourage children to use numbers in many contexts. You could show the children the clock, ‘it’s lunch time’, talk about sizes for outdoor clothing ‘what size wellies?’, processes and routines ‘it will be going home time soon’.

You can help younger children from birth to 3 years old start to learn about numbers in several ways.

  • Play finger rhymes that use numbers like ‘Round and round the garden’ or ‘Two little dicky birds’.
  • Draw attention to changes in amounts, for example, by adding more bricks to a tower. Use words like ‘lots’ or ‘more’.
  • Develop counting-like behaviour, children under 2 could be making sounds, pointing or saying some numbers in sequence. Suggestions: count fingers and toes, stairs, toys, food items.
  • If children are saying one number word for each object, it is not always necessary to correct them if they skip a number.
  • Help children to count numbers using objects. For example, move a piece of apple to one side once they have counted it.
  • Help them use ‘manipulatives’ for example, foam dice or counting blocks.

At 3 and 4 years you can help children expand their mathematical skills in these ways. Children should be learning to:

  • Develop fast recognition of up to 3 objects, without having to count them individually, for example, point to small groups of 2 or 3 objects and say ‘look, there are 2’.
  • Count things and then repeat the last number. For example: ‘1, 2, 3… 3 cars’.
  • Link numerals and amounts, for example, showing the right number of objects to match the numeral, up to 5. Suggestions, have a pot labelled ‘5 pencils’ or a crate for ‘3 trucks’.
  • Solve real-world mathematical problems with numbers up to 5. Discuss mathematical ideas throughout the day. Support children to solve problems using fingers, objects and marks, for example, ‘there are four of you, but there aren’t enough chairs, what shall we do?

Closely observe what children are doing during play and make the links to numbers in context during the day.

Suggested activities

Setting up a shop

A toy till and groceries

You’ll need:

  • a suitable, safe area for the shop, inside or outside
  • empty cardboard food boxes and containers
  • empty plastic bottles
  • fruit and vegetables
  • tinned food
  • play money, purses, old credit cards
  • shopping trolleys, shopping bags, shopping baskets, containers, egg boxes
  • toy, homemade, or real cash register, calculator, weighing scales with weights and digital scales
  • labels for children to write price tags
  • paper and pencils to write shopping lists , images, words and numbers
  • pretend vehicle for delivery driver

To carry out the activity:

  • talk to the children about what they think could be in the shop, the roles that are needed
  • work with the children to set up shelves and containers to store items
  • make signage for the shop – labelling on shelves
  • make a conveyor belt using a table with paper or plastic that wraps around the table to form a loop. Seal the paper. This can then be used to slide the items along to the cashier
  • use price labels on the items for sale
  • set up an area where children can weigh items and another area to pay for their purchases
  • place money into the cash registers and the purses for children to use in their play
  • have scanners for credit cards
  • negotiate the shop rules with the children
  • support the play with rich mathematical language

Children can have real life experiences about shopping (understanding the world). Children can try out different roles in the pretend shop - cashier, stacking shelves, customer, personal shoppers for delivery (personal, social and emotional development). They can use money and work out prices, consider how many items they need, estimate and negotiate how many items fit on shelves, into bags and containers (mathematics). They can talk to each other in role and take turns and use shop rules, as well as a discussion about the activity afterwards (communication and language). There are many opportunities when setting up a shop for example hairdressers, shoe shop.

Setting up a welly boot station outdoors

Two pairs of children's wellies

You’ll need:

  • pairs of wellies in different sizes, both children’s and adults’
  • numbers on the soles of the wellies or written on the inside of the boots where children can see the number (size) clearly
  • foot measures with length and width measure
  • tape measures, rulers of different sizes
  • storage for the welly boots
  • somewhere for children to sit to put the wellies on
  • materials that the children can use to make marks: pens, pencils, chalks, paper, white boards, squared paper, black boards

To carry out the activity:

  • set up an area that is accessible and will be suitable for children to change into welly boots
  • let the children select and try to put the welly boots on independently
  • offer support where necessary
  • do not rush the activity, decisions involved in selecting footwear can be complex and children will problem solve
  • discuss with the children the size, shape, colour and patterns on the boots and the size of their feet
  • support children to measure their feet using foot measures
  • support children to select the correct size welly boots by looking for the size on the boots, using their shoes or feet against a welly boot to estimate
  • encourage them to look at their own footwear to see if they can find the size of their feet
  • give children opportunities to record their mathematical thinking by making marks or pictures, ask the children to talk about what they have done
  • extend the activity depending on the direction that the children are taking, consider if they are they making collections, making comparisons, ordering, estimating

Children can talk to you and each other about why they need welly boots and wearing them outside (understanding the world). They can work together putting the boots on and off (personal social and emotional development). They can learn how to get them on and off (physical development). Children can write down who needs which size (listening and understanding). Playing outside with boots on they can make patterns with paint on the bottom (expressive arts and design).

Other activities

Nrich offers a variety of counting games and activities for pre-school children like ‘Pirate poundland’ and ‘number talks’.

BBC’s CBeebies has pre-school maths activities and games.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“I am noticing the importance of giving children real opportunities to use numbers in context through finding out about the child’s interests, engaging children in simple tasks and cooking. Making the most of real life opportunities for spotting numbers and shapes as we walk around the environment and community. I realised that it is not just about displaying numbers and number lines in the environment. It is about making numbers real and using them all day long, in everything that I plan for and offer as well as closely observing what the child is doing.”

Hannah, childminder, Bristol.


  • Numbers need to be real and meaningful to young children, so it’s important to show them numbers in context.
  • Children need real-life maths experiences and the chance to repeat them often. This is how they remember them .
  • Use mathematical words to support children’s mathematical thinking.
  • Observe what children are doing during play and make the links to numbers in context.
  • Having a good range of resources will encourage curiosity and creativity.

Next steps

  • If possible, take opportunities to visit other settings where maths is a strength.
  • Closely observe what children are doing during play and make the links to numbers in context.
  • Look at your setting and ask yourself what are the opportunities to use numbers and maths in the daily routines.
  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.