Early Years Update’s practical guide for parents looks at how to have fun with maths

Maths is an area of learning that many of us find challenging. Our previous experience may make us think maths is ‘hard’, dull and not very exciting! However, maths is an essential part of everyday life so it is very important that we don’t pass on these negative messages to our children.

Young children develop their attitudes to life by observing adults closely and then following their lead. By being a ‘maths enthusiast’ yourself you will be acting as a very positive role model for your child. Having fun with numbers, singing number songs and rhymes and playing with shapes and patterns is a good way to achieve this and playing alongside your child may even make you feel more excited about the fascinating world of mathematics.

In early years settings over the years, different terms have been used to describe children’s experiences in the area of mathematical development. These include arithmetic, mathematical development, problem-solving, reasoning and numeracy. All these essentially mean the same thing – maths. As adults it is important that we act as good role models for children, showing them how we use maths in daily life. This could be as simple as talking about how old people are – all children seem to be fascinated by the number that relates to their age – or looking for house numbers and talking about addresses on letters and cards.

In the early years setting, practitioners use lots of different play opportunities to help children develop their basic understanding of maths. These include counting games, exploring shapes, matching things, sorting objects by size and shape, making patterns, recognizing written numerals. You can support your child’s learning at home by looking for lots of different opportunities to play with numbers and shapes, indoors and out of doors. Indoor and outdoor games are great ways to practice mathematical knowledge, skills and understanding. For example:

  • dominoes and lotto encourage number recognition and counting
  • card games such as ‘Snap’ and ‘Happy Families’ give practice in matching, sorting and recognizing similarities and differences
  • board games, including ‘Ludo’ and ‘Snakes and Ladders’, support counting, number recognition and one-to-one correspondence
  • traditional games such as hopscotch, skipping, hide and seek and ‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’ involve number recognition, counting and measuring time
  • all types of races involve an understanding of distance, time and first, second and third
  • team games such as football and soft cricket foster an awareness of space and direction as well as encouraging children to play together cooperatively.

Ideas to use with children of different ages

Many nursery rhymes and action songs are about numbers and counting. There is a strong connection between the order, timing, beat and rhythm of music and aspects of mathematics such as counting, sequencing and understanding time and order.

Ideas for the under-twos

  • Choose some action rhymes to sing at nappy-changing or bath time – ‘Incy Wincy Spider’, ‘Round and Round the Garden, Like a Teddy Bear’ and ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ work well. Make a splash in the bath at the end of ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock.’ Many of these rhymes introduce positional language – up, down, round – as well as numbers.
  • Use every opportunity to count fingers, toes and other parts of the body and face. Say, ‘[name] has one nose and two eyes and two ears.’ Say numbers out loud when you are dressing your child – one jumper, two socks, one hat. This will help her to understand the meaning of number names when she begins to talk.
  • Have crawling races with your baby in the garden or at the park. Use words such as fast, slow, in, out, over, under, first, second, third. Doing this helps your child to grasp the meaning of mathematical words.
  • Shape sorters and stacking beaker sets are great toys for ‘playing with maths’. Say the names of the shapes while your child is playing with his shape sorter and point out shapes – circles, triangles, squares – out of doors when you are out for a walk. Being familiar with the properties of shapes will help your child develop his mathematical understanding as he gets older.

Ideas for two- to three-year-olds

  • Sing nursery rhymes, such as ‘One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Once I Caught a Fish Alive’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’, which are also counting rhymes. By doing this your child will begin to pick up the rhythm of counting.
  • Play ‘There Were 10 in the Bed’ with your toddler, rolling over on the floor when you come to the line ‘and the little one said “roll over”’. This helps to make positional language understandable by linking it to movement.
  • Collect together as many toy animals as you can find and act out the song ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two’. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the correct animals for the song. This is an enjoyable way to match and count objects.

Ideas for four- and five-year-olds

  • Play board games such as ‘Snakes and Ladders’, card games such as ‘Snap’ and ‘Happy Families’, picture and number dominoes and ‘Lotto’ to encourage your child to develop and practice maths skills. These games are all enjoyable ways of consolidating early maths skills.
  • Think about the games you played as a child – play hopscotch, skipping and ball games, hide and seek and ‘What Time is it Mr Wolf?’ in your garden or at the park.
  • Make some props to go with the action rhymes ‘Two Little Dickie Birds’, ‘Five Little Ducks’, ‘Five Currant Buns’, ‘Five Fat Sausages Sizzling in the Pan’. Use two paper birds attached to your fingers, five plastic ducks, cardboard sausages or pictures cut out of magazines and currant buns made out of playdough. Playing with these rhymes builds an understanding of taking away and adding on, and some involve counting backwards and forwards.
  • Say more complex rhymes with your child: ‘10 Green Bottles’ ‘One, Two, Buckle, my Shoe’ and sing ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’, complete with the actions. This will extend children’s counting skills and number recognition.
Ideas to use with children of different ages

Many nursery rhymes and action songs are about numbers and counting. There is a strong connection between the order, timing, beat and rhythm of music and aspects of mathematics such as counting, sequencing and understanding time and order.

Ideas for the under-twos

Choose some action rhymes to sing at nappy-changing or bath time – ‘Incy Wincy Spider’, ‘Round and Round the Garden, Like a Teddy Bear’ and ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ work well. Make a splash in the bath at the end of ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock.’ Many of these rhymes introduce positional language – up, down, round – as well as numbers. Use every opportunity to count fingers, toes and other parts of the body and face. Say, ‘[name] has one nose and two eyes and two ears.’ Say numbers out loud when you are dressing your child – one jumper, two socks, one hat. This will help her to understand the meaning of number names when she begins to talk. Have crawling races with your baby in the garden or at the park. Use words such as fast, slow, in, out, over, under, first, second, third. Doing this helps your child to grasp the meaning of mathematical words. Shape sorters and stacking beaker sets are great toys for ‘playing with maths’. Say the names of the shapes while your child is playing with his shape sorter and point out shapes – circles, triangles, squares – out of doors when you are out for a walk. Being familiar with the properties of shapes will help your child develop his mathematical understanding as he gets older.

Ideas for two- to three-year-olds

Sing nursery rhymes, such as ‘One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Once I Caught a Fish Alive’ and ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’, which are also counting rhymes. By doing this your child will begin to pick up the rhythm of counting .Play ‘There Were 10 in the Bed’ with your toddler, rolling over on the floor when you come to the line ‘and the little one said “roll over”’. This helps to make positional language understandable by linking it to movement. Collect together as many toy animals as you can find and act out the song ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two’. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the correct animals for the song. This is an enjoyable way to match and count objects. Ideas for four- and five-year-olds
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