Maths in Early Years: How to build solid foundations for Primary

We brought together maths education experts from around the world for a series of online expert panels and webinars to consider how we can equip maths learners for the future – whatever that future looks like. This series of blog posts aim to highlight the key takeaways to help you empower today’s learners to embark on a lifelong adventure with maths through resilience, connection, curiosity, and creativity.

In this blog we summarise Dr Helen J Williams’ webinar on how to build solid foundations for Primary in Early Years maths.

Dr Helen J Williams is an experienced, UK-based educational consultant specialising in the teaching of mathematics in the Early Years. She has a particular interest in working alongside colleagues developing effective playful curricula.

In her webinar, Helen considered what educators can learn from research about the key priorities for early maths and the predictors of later achievement and how this can be related to practice.

Key features influencing children’s achievement later on

Number and quantity

Making the link between numerals and quantity is key for young children’s understanding, but many of the numbers they meet do not have that link (Nunes and Bryant, 2009). Practitioners need to consider how to produce those links, offering children plenty of opportunities to see number symbols linked to quantity: from score boards, numeral dice, and number cards, to daily routines, like sharing out food at snacktime, or tidy-up labels where they can check the quantity of things matches the numeral.

Shape and space

Spatial reasoning is how we understand how things (and ourselves) move and interact in relation to the physical space around them. There’s an increasing body of research that indicates that early spatial reasoning predicts later mathematical achievement, as well as directly impacting children’s ability in number (Cheng and Mix, 2014).  

Spatial representations and reasoning

The development of spatial reasoning, helping children to understand relationships, to visualise spatial representations and to start using mathematical language can be supported by:

  • Jigsaw play
  • Combining and positioning shapes
  • Construction, rotation, using barriers
  • Mapping – using maps and following instructions
  • Memory games

What are the links to number? 

A lot of the work done on number with young children is based on a spatial, visual element. The ability to visualise arrangements is powerful and directly corresponds to rearranging, combining, breaking up and putting together amounts in number. Spatial experiences provide memorable visual patterns, and physical experiences of rearranging manipulatives help children construct and connect images (Gifford 2020).

How can you develop young children’s mathematical thinking?

Research tells us that these are the things that really matter in Early Years maths:

Early number sense
Building early number sense without rushing to the abstract, setting solid foundations with manipulatives and many different images.

Spatial reasoning 
Supporting number understanding and helping children develop the visualisation and interpretation they are going to need later on. 

Mathematical conversation
Back, Griffiths & Gifford, 2016

Mathematical conversation
Historically, mathematics learning has focused on getting an answer, and then moving on. Instead, we need to try to sustain collaborative and cumulative conversations to push children’s thinking forward, inviting them to elaborate. If you listen to what children are telling you and ask them to clarify it, you can get a better understanding of their mathematical thinking.

Sustained shared thinking
Practitioners need to establish and create the opportunities for rich interactions that involve sustained shared thinking between children and adults, and between children, working together to solve problems, giving learners thinking time to develop ideas (Sylva et al, 2004).

Self-Directed play
Bincombe Valley

Self-directed play
Teacher-directed activity needs to be balanced with self-directed play, inside and outside of the classroom. Self-directed play and exploration gives children time to make sense of what they are being taught and helps teachers to assess where they are and what they understand.

Subject knowledge
Underpinning everything is pedagogical subject knowledge: knowing the necessary background in child development to make choices, anticipate outcomes, and make changes.

You can watch the full webinar ‘Maths in Early Years: How to build solid foundations for Primary’ here. (Note: you will be taken to a sign-up page and asked to enter your details in order to access the recording).  

For the next blog in this series ‘The future of primary maths’ by an expert teacher panel click here.

Further reading

Cheng Y. and Mix K.S. (2014). Spatial training improves children’s mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development 15(1): 2–11

Gifford, S. (2020). The importance of shape and space in the early years. Available here.

Nunes, T. and Bryant, P. (2009). Key Understandings in mathematics learning: Understanding whole numbers

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Taggart, B. (2004). The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Findings from Pre-school to end of Key Stage1. London: DfES

Williams, H.J. (2020). Mathematics in the early years: What matters? Impact Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching.  Available here.

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Build deep understanding with Numicon Firm Foundations

Numicon Firm Foundations is a comprehensive and varied programme of Maths activities for children aged 3–5. It is based on a proven approach to teaching and learning mathematics that builds deep understanding for every child, firmly placing the teacher as an exemplar mathematical communicator. 

The programme: 

  • Provides a balance of structured and explorative activities for all areas of the setting, indoors and outdoors
  • Uses stories, songs and rhymes as well as cross-curricular links as a springboard for maths learning
  • Includes assessment opportunities throughout to guide the observation of children’s developing mathematical understanding 
  • Covers the new Early Learning Goals as well as Shape, Space and Measure
  • Includes 18 Activity Cards covering the Foundation Stage mathematics curriculum in England and supporting all other Early Years settings. Plus, support for putting Numicon into practice in the classroom, planning and assessing, and daily routine suggestions.

 Firm Foundations is a great addition to any Early Years setting looking to prepare children for Primary school.