Learning mathematics through play

by Helen J Williams

Early mathematics is essential for children’s full development, it is also predictive of later, wider achievement. Early mathematical learning is critical in sparking interest in STEAM subjects, as long as we approach EYFS mathematics in a way that is engaging for us all – adults and children alike. Too many of us tell stories of unpleasant school mathematics experiences. We can change this, and we must.

Why is being playful in mathematics so important?

Play is intrinsically motivating. It is memorable and mindful. We can use play to make EYFS mathematics much more in touch with the children we work with, creating a space where we can build on their prior understandings and experiences. This includes:

  • being playful in how we approach taught mathematical activities, such as collaboratively making up a simple game during a counting episode, and
  • observing, responding to and building on children’s own interests; bringing some mathematics into their natural play, eg collecting, organising, counting, weighing, comparing etc. by placing measuring tools in the role play or block play area, scales and bun trays in the mud kitchen.

Mathematical play in the EYFS

Observing what children say and do, interacting only sensitively and then researching the background on this area of maths to decide what we might do next is one important part of being mathematically playful. We need to stay connected to our learners and their interests to promote engagement and confidence in mathematics: What are they interested in doing right now? How can I link some maths into that?

These two sites are helpful in supporting practitioners in understanding the underlying mathematical development: Learning Trajectories and Birth to 5 Matters

Being more playful with the mathematical activities we plan means allowing time for exploration before we teach: What do you notice? What can we find out? This allows children plenty of space to ‘own’ the new ideas we introduce. One important question is whether I am ensuring that the statutory Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning are part of my mathematics provision:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Active learning, and
  • Creating and thinking critically.

This only happens if I plan for these to be part of what I am providing and what I am saying and doing mathematically. For example: using continuous provision for exploring mathematical ideas and resources and making sure I include regular opportunities for children to reflect on how they tackled an activity such as sharing out a huge pile of pinecones or building a tall tower, as well as having time for another attempt.

Considering the role of the adult is essential in mathematical play. One recent meta-analysis of research (Skene et al 2022) points to what the authors term ‘guided play’ – the intersection of play and guidance – as a powerful vehicle for early mathematical learning. They identify three fundamental characteristics of effective guided play:

  • The adult is clear about what is to be learned
  • The child should have choice and agency – whoever initiates the activity, it is child led
  • The adult is flexible with their guidance.

For more guidance on supporting early mathematics, it is worth exploring these two websites: Early Maths and The Erikson Institute

Dr Helen J Williams is an independent educational consultant specialising in the learning and teaching of primary mathematics. Helen’s book “Playful Mathematics for Children 3 to 7”, published in March 2022 explores these ideas further. Helen also regularly delivers early mathematics CPD training courses on the subject on behalf of Early Education.


Learning mathematics through play

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