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How to Build Early Maths Skills With Simple Activities

Read all about early maths skills and how you can build children’s skills with simple pre-number activities.

What is Early Maths?

Early maths skills are usually pre-number skills, that is, skills that contribute to mathematical understanding without necessarily involving numbers.

They are the basic skills that children need to learn in order to be mathematically literate and build a solid foundation upon which to build understanding.

They are also an important component of school readiness.

6 Early Mathematical Skills

Early numeracy skills are those that are precursors to understanding numbers, as well as some basic number understanding.

Here are some of these mathematical skills.

1. Cardinality and Counting

Being able to count, not only by reciting numbers in the form of a list but also by demonstrating one-to-one correspondence – that is saying one number name for each item.

It also involves a deeper understanding that the value of a number demonstrates the ‘howmanyness’ of things.

2. Comparison

Being able to make comparisons between groups, quantities and numbers. This involves an understanding of ‘worth’ and of ‘more’ and ‘less.’

3. Composition

Composition involves understanding how numbers are made from other numbers and how smaller numbers can be added together to make bigger numbers.

4. Pattern

Understanding mathematical relationships by identifying and understanding different types of patterns.

Initially, this will likely be with colour and shape, but will ultimately lead to the ability to identify mathematical patterns.

5. Shape and Space

Wider mathematical thinking is developed through an awareness of shapes, their similarities and differences and how they can fit together.

6. Measurement

Comparing different aspects and properties of measurement such as height, weight and volume. Eventually, this will lead to comparison using standard units.

Why is Early Maths Important?

Early maths builds a solid foundation for later mathematics, which is considered a core subject in most curriculums.

As well as numeracy skills such as learning to count and use numbers, early maths helps build skills such as problem solving, and developing spatial awareness.

Problem-solving skills are not only useful in future mathematical learning but across the board. The skills attained through early maths can be applied in a broad range of contexts across the curriculum.

How to Teach Early Maths

Like all good early years practice, early maths concepts are best delivered through play. Children need to be engaged, motivated and able to think for themselves in order to get the best out of early maths teaching.

Number blocks on a table

Young children have a natural curiosity and interest in the world around them. This makes teaching early maths skills simple to do in a hands-on way.

It is easy to reduce early maths to a tick sheet at a table with a collection of objects to count, but this is unlikely to be inspiring to young children.

It is also completely unnecessary as opportunities for learning mathematical skills are found everywhere in both everyday life and in preschool.

Rather, bring maths into play by asking “Whose tower is taller?” or “How can we share out these dinosaurs?” and in everyday scenarios such as “How many cups do we need for everyone in this group to have one each? How many have we got? How many more do we need?”

7 Simple Early Maths Activities

These do not need to be complicated or involve expensive equipment. Here are a few ideas for activities that could be carried out at home or at school.

1. Baskets

Provide some baskets and a selection of objects and encourage children to undertake sorting and grouping activities.

There are many early maths skills that can be developed through this simple exercise and you can tailor the selection of objects to your particular children’s needs.

  • For example, children can use the baskets to sort by shape, thereby exploring the properties of shapes.
  • Positional language such as in front of, next to, behind, underneath, etc., can be used to describe where both items and baskets are.
  • For older or more able children, the items placed in baskets can be counted, moving from simply reciting numbers, to one-to-one correspondence, being able to determine the total number in a group and also making comparisons between groups. 

2. Cooking

Cooking activities are a favourite for most children and learning to cook is an important life skill. Alongside this, there is plenty of opportunity for mathematical thinking, activity and language.

Children can choose a simple recipe to follow and be encouraged to collect the correct ingredients and weigh them out accurately.

There is plenty of opportunity for counting; ingredients, spoonfuls and products, and for using mathematical language to describe weight, size and quantity.

Using scales, measuring jugs, cups and spoons to measure ingredients accurately is a great learning opportunity too.

3. Laundry Sorting

As well as helping to get a household chore done, allowing small children to help with sorting laundry can also be beneficial to their early maths development.

Young child sorting the laundry

They can categorize clothing by type, colour or who it belongs to.

They can also help to pair up socks – which helps them focus on size, length, colour or pattern, and build up an understanding of the term ‘pair’ (even better if there are a few odd socks in the mix!)

4. Building Blocks

Most children love building with blocks, and as well as enhancing creativity and enabling scientific understanding, building and stacking blocks has many benefits to mathematical development.

Children can analyze the properties of blocks to select appropriate blocks for different parts of the structure.

They can use language to describe this – straight, smooth, sloping, arched, and so on, as well as a more formal mathematical language like edges, corners, sides, cylinders and rectangles.

Building with blocks also gives ample opportunity for the development and use of positional language such as on top of, underneath, next to, in front of, behind, left, right and between.

Children can also begin to develop an understanding of balance and symmetry and use blocks in such a way as to fit in with this.

5. Making Patterns

Understanding and being able to identify, continue and create patterns lay the early foundations for later number work and mathematical thinking.

A great way to start developing this awareness is by using simple AB repeating patterns with colours. You might use cubes, blocks or beads, paint or coloured pens or dabbers on long pieces of paper.

As children progress through their understanding they can move on to more complex patterns.

Working with patterns helps children identify rules of how things work and figure out what should happen next based on what has happened before. They can also learn about predicting, generalizing and testing out ideas.

Patterns offer the opportunity for counting as children can count in units of ones or sets.

Patterns also build spatial awareness and give the opportunity for the use of positional language e.g. “the blue comes next” or “the red is in between the yellow and the blue.”

6. Board Games

There are plenty of high-quality board games available for young children and many of these help to develop early numeracy skills.

Children playing a board game

Memory games involving matching pairs are popular and build up children’s ability to recognize similarities and differences which is important for later mathematical learning.

Games involving using dice help children to recognize quantities quickly, also called subitizing, which is important for building mathematical competencies.

Counting aloud and moving one space for each number helps children to develop one-to-one correspondence.

Choosing a selection of games based on children’s interests is a great way to develop mathematical skills alongside social learning.

(Get your own set of printable memory cards and other games here!)

7. Outdoor Mud Kitchen

Learning early maths skills is certainly not restricted to the indoor environment and as most children love playing outdoors it makes sense to take their learning outdoors too.

Child playing with mud

A mud kitchen is such a versatile piece of play equipment that it is certainly worth investing in, but it doesn’t need to be a specialized piece of equipment marketed as a ‘Mud Kitchen’ – really anything will do.

Some tubs, jugs, lots of containers of different sizes and water, mud, sand, gravel and so on for mixing up recipes is all you really need.

For very young children, filling and emptying containers builds a rudimentary understanding of quantity, shape and space whilst older children can begin to use the language associated with this; full, empty, more, less.

Adding weighing scales – either digital, analogue or balance scales – is a great way to maximize mathematical learning opportunities in a mud kitchen.

Younger children love experimenting with weighing scales, filling the bowls and watching the numbers move or trying to balance scales or make their own side heavier.

Older children may be able to understand concepts of weighing more or less, being heavier or lighter and begin to understand the value of numbers.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these pre-number activities.

Are you a preschool teacher or working in Early Childhood Education? Would you like to receive regular emails with useful tips and play-based activity ideas to try with your children? Sign up for the newsletter!

Building early maths and pre-number skills in preschool - pinnable image

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Subramanian Angappan

Tuesday 13th of April 2021

Beautiful way to develop children

Tanja Mcilroy

Wednesday 14th of April 2021

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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