Early Years · Mathematics and problem-solving skills

Early number skills

Many very young children start to show an interest with quantity and other mathematical concepts such as shape quite early in their exploration of the world. 

Counting in everyday situations

As parents, or adults caring for babies and toddlers, we may tend to count e.g. each spoonful eaten when feeding, or the number of trees or cars passed on a walk. In this way, children can begin to get a number sense for counting long before they have any concept of the way this is symbolically represented in figures using the digits 0 to 9.


Rhymes round-up

There are so many counting nursery rhymes and traditional songs, some simply chanting numbers forwards in order, some itemising (e.g. The 12 days of Christmas), others still counting backwards or in twos, etc. You can adapt many of them to fit current learning levels. Here are a just a few examples:Number Rhymes

Number Rhymes


There are also many traditional tales that refer to a certain number of items or characters, Cinderella’s 2 ugly sisters, Goldilocks’ 3 bears, 3 little pigs,  3 billy goats Gruff, Snow White’s 7 dwarves… Two or three allows great comparison, e.g. of size – another mathematical concept. For many children, the story is the thing, and the numbers hold no fascination. That’s absolutely fine, but if the story has been enjoyed time and again, chatting about the story from a mathematical perspective can be a way to make abstract concepts more real and introduce mathematical language. I’m not suggesting that this should be done overtly, but rather, gentle discussion and questioning can be introduced:

  • “How many goats were there?” “Can you show me three fingers?”
  • “Where did the wolf go first? second/next? third/last?”
  • “Which bear was biggest/tallest? smallest/shortest?”

Book – The Phantom Tollbooth

This one’s not exactly early years, but it’s a marvelous book, and full of fun, wonder and mathematical concepts that are so cleverly and philosophically considered that it’s a pleasure to read and re-read as an adult. I did not know it as a child, but after my husband introduced it to our children, hearing it read and seeing their enthusiasm, I read it to my class of seven- and eight-year-olds. They were entranced. I have read it to every junior class I have taught since then. It’s ripe with cross-curricular possibilities for developing whole schemes of work.

Phantom tollbooth

I’m sure I’ll come back to this book in later posts!

Making the connections

There are opportunities to count throughout the day. Make it playful, celebrate the times when children count independently. Do not rush to correct them, just repeat the counting accurately, if it is appropriate to do so and there is time. With items in pictures, touch each as it is counted, and with small objects, move each one as it is counted, to avoid miscounting or confusion.

When children show an interest in written numbers, point these out in the environment, too. Numbers on busses, house numbers, car number-plates…

Sorting and stacking toys

These have so many uses – let them be familiar and well-loved toys before overdoing the academic educational angle.

Counting toys

Count, measure, compare… (and they are great for developing fine motor skills needed for later when maths typically needs to be recorded in writing)

Maths in everyday situations

As well as pointing our numbers and counting objects in the environment, compare them! Discuss shapes and sizes, make the language of maths familiar. Combine number and shape e.g. by counting how many round objects there are, etc. How many socks are on the floor? How many shoes (pairs of shoes) have been put away?

Ordinal concepts can be confusing. Children often understand that a ‘winner’ comes first, but don’t grasp the idea of sequences. You could talk about the front door colours of the first, second, third, fourth house in the street…  Is it the first door or the second door green? Be explicit about what e.g. first, next, and after that mean, and children’s grasp of sequences and time will also be reinforced.

Cooking is a great way to work on number skills. There is everything from basic quantity of ingredients, tools and resources, through shapes and sizes (again), to comparisons and proportions, and reading scales for two- and three-digit numbers.

What’s your favourite way to bring maths into every day?

A collection of infographics related to maths can be found here

A collection of downloadable maths-based resources for printing can be found here

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