With a mind for maths

Building the beginnings for future learning

Ali McClure | March 2023

Learning maths through their everyday world makes it so much more accessible to children. The importance of maths in the early years is paramount in building the beginnings for future learning – when maths can become a challenge for some. In order to help children to develop a mind for maths, practitioners need to create the right environment by curating the learning materials they choose to use. Introducing maths naturally through continuous provision and play, and selecting resources carefully, makes learning effective and fun.

Kids building block tower

Different experiences

We all bring different experiences to our early years settings, and this applies equally to the way we approach maths. Some of us will have hated the subject at school, while others feel confident with it from the start and easily move on to manage maths in the adult world. But whether we feel skilled or not, it is our attitude to maths that will make all the difference to the little learners we work with.

More than songs and stories

We often start introducing maths to children with counting songs and stories like ‘one, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive’. While this is beneficial, maths is so much more. It is about spotting patterns, subitising, estimating and linking knowledge we already have to answer questions and solve problems. Introducing these skills early builds the beginnings of debate, one of the four recommended key aspects in the easily accessible ‘TOLD’ strategy (EEF, 2023).

I love the approach to learning of ‘I see, I know, I wonder’ that creates the context for maths and underpins our continuous provision. We can choose just the right resources to prompt participation, provoke questions and promote all aspects of learning. Optimising the environment to create a culture of curiosity helps every child to have a mind for maths. 

Simple starting points with a depth that makes the difference

Simple starting points are crucial if we’re ever going to get started, so the courses and resources I have developed over the years have this concept at the core. All kinds of loose parts work well, but well-designed resources based on sound practice and the science of learning can empower practitioners as well as inspire the child. Manipulatives that are versatile, like blocks, become the tools children choose to use because of the intrinsic depth of design.

It can start with a stick

So much learning can evolve from a simple item like a single stick. Positioning a long piece of ribbon alongside the stick might provoke a ‘How long is it?’ investigation. Another child might see the ribbon and want to bandage the stick like an Egyptian mummy. Another might stand back and look at the symmetrical pattern they have made by crossing the ribbon backwards and forwards over the stick. Likewise, a creative activity such as making a giant dreamcatcher or building an outdoor den can help develop a mind for maths by involving concepts such as prediction, measurement and discussion.

Add a set of weighing scales to your blocks corner and the blocks are transformed into tools for exploring the concepts of estimation and weight ratios. Maths can be inspired in the role play area too. Add some fabrics and a pole to your outdoor block area, and observe what Tracey Adams describes as ‘the unpacking of maths and the unfurling of maths language skills’. With the right materials, role play activities will challenge maths-based concepts and engineering skills, as children experiment with getting the pole to stand up straight or hold a flag on their pirate ship.

Scales with Roomscapes

Maths is a vehicle to vibrant vocabulary

So much of our early everyday language is mathematically based: ‘The teddy is next to the truck.’ ‘Pass me a big block.’ ‘My car will go further than yours!’ When we inspire maths, it provokes conversation turns and rich language skills that ‘enable the effective communication of mathematical thinking’ (NCCA, 2014).

Child counting loose parts

Taking their learning further

I recently introduced a group of children to my latest invention, a set of notched broom handles that click together to form a grid. We started out by sorting and comparing items while exercising a lot of mathematical vocabulary. One little girl used the grid to sort ‘blue things’ and ‘not-blue-things’. She then noticed that her ‘not-blue-things’ were rainbow colours, and she carefully sorted the items on that side of the grid into a rainbow sequence. She even spotted a rainbow glove and added that to the section. Every time practitioners use these versatile, open-ended resources with children the outcome is surprising. They don’t simply support children in building the beginnings for future learning, but engage children in limitless ways that take their learning further.

Girl with sticks and clock

Spotting maths outside our settings

Once we have introduced young children to some simple maths concepts in practical and fun ways, children begin to see patterns in their environment:  ‘look, our fence has black and white stripes!’ They begin to spot the things they have just learned: ‘my stairs at home are spiral’, ‘our saucepans are cylinders’, or ‘my mummy’s bed is horizontal.’

Using this approach when teaching my reception class during lockdown, it was so rewarding to see the maths learning evolving daily in directions I had not dictated  from simple starting points carefully woven into their activities and play.

Our observations about crossed sticks led to conversations about right angles, and soon the children were linking their learning by checking for right angles in the outdoor area. Their excitement and ease in transferring this concept sparked further discussion at home, which in several cases extended to complex discussions about acute and obtuse angles.

Kids building with Outlast ramps

Building the beginnings of future learning - aspects of the abstract

Children should never be forced into learning. It must always be developmentally appropriate; a basic introduction to the tools they will use later in their education. Just imagine when their junior school teacher gets out protractors and starts talking about angles and degrees. These children will readily be able to dive deep, to make cognitive connections with what is already embedded in their long-term memory and feel so much more confident in dealing with the abstract concepts  because they have experienced aspects of these from a young age in a perfectly appropriate and practical way.

Prompting progression

Using practical props is the perfect way to prompt progression and learning that we know our children are ready for. Whether we are consolidating connections to learning they have already experienced or planting the seeds for new concepts, this ‘mind for maths’ approach gives the children agency in their learning. It also gives them the words to be able to describe what they see, to ask questions and to wonder out loud: ‘I see two sticks crossed! I know it is a right angle. I wonder where I can find more right angles?’

In addition to natural practical props like sticks, leaves and stones, it is also vital to use quality resources that are designed to facilitate learning. For example, modular blocks designed for small children will engender learning and language for maths concepts such as half, quarter, taller, shorter, longer and wider. One way to ensure that we as educators choose the best resources is to understand them ourselves – to play and experiment with them, to challenge each other’s choices and to consider the language we will use to optimise the children’s learning.

Ultimately, all the resources in an early years setting can be utilised to introduce and reinforce mathematical concepts. We as practitioners need to be fully familiar with these resources – we need to play before the children do! Open-ended learning with open-ended resources means that children not only enhance their learning, but develop social skills, role play and language. They have agency in their learning and the oracy to be able to talk about it confidently, to investigate, to question and (without them even knowing) to start building both a mind for maths and self-belief in their abilities.

Kids stacking Outlast


Education Endowment Foundation 2021, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1, EEF, viewed 8 March 2023,

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Mathematics in Early Childhood and Primary Education (3-8 years), NCCA, viewed 8 March 2023, ‘Mathematics in Early Childhood and Primary Education (3-8 years).

Adams, Tracey, 2023, The Importance of Oracy in Maths, viewed 8 March 2023,

For resources and information: Ali McClure Education and Parenting and

Maths, Personal, Social & Emotional Development
Teacher training, Professional development