Enabling Environments: Let's explore ... Pattern

Judith Stevens
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Sometimes overlooked or left to art activities, pattern is fundamental to children's understanding of mathematics, says Judith Stevens.

Patterns are all around us in everyday life, in the natural and built environment. Individual children, or a group of children, may have become interested in patterns for various reasons. Perhaps their early years setting has been enhanced through the addition of new cushions, curtains or other soft furnishings, or one of the children has a new patterned jumper.

Pattern covers aspects of all six areas of Learning and Development within the Early Years Foundation Stage. It especially provides lots of opportunities to extend children's creative development and explore problem solving, reasoning and numeracy, an area that practitioners sometimes interpret as being more about numbers and calculating than about shapes, space, measures and patterns (see box). As a result, pattern and shape unfortunately are often either overlooked or introduced in a limited and uninspired manner.

In fact, practitioners can help children to identify shape and pattern throughout their environment. Pattern is fundamental to children's understanding of mathematics and they need lots of 'hands-on', fun, physical experiences to explore.


Cover a table with fabric or paper with patterns of wild animals and provide a Tuff Spot builder's tray with assorted wild animals, fir cones, boulders, bark chips, sand, gravel and potted plants and place books about animal patterns and camouflage nearby.

Learning opportunities
- Co-operating and collaborating
- Using a widening range of words to express or elaborate ideas
- Beginning to use talk in imaginary situations
- Using the language of position
- Investigating objects and materials by using their senses as appropriate
- Showing curiosity, observing and manipulating objects
- Expressing and communicating ideas and thoughts using imaginative play


- Support the children as they develop imaginative play themes creating habitats for the animals.

- Draw children's attention to the patterns made by the animal's feet.

- Ask open-ended questions about the patterns on the animals and the way in which creatures can use camouflage to hide.

- Introduce and model the use of the language of pattern.

- Encourage the children to refer to the information texts.


Provide dressing-up clothes and lengths of fabrics with lots of different patterns to create a clothes shop. Remember to include multicultural clothes with different designs and simple accessories such as scarves, gloves and ties. Include a till, receipt pads, store cards, fashion magazines, money and tape measures, and some signs such as 'special offer', 'closed', 'open' or 'sale'.

Learning opportunities
- Dressing independently
- Having an awareness of, and showing interest in, cultural differences
- Using language to recreate roles and experiences
- Using the language of position
- Showing interest in the lives of people familiar to them
- Using imagination in role play


- Observe, and where appropriate, extend children's imaginative role play.

- Model the use of specific resources and act 'in role' - as a salesperson or customer.

- Create specific scenarios that require a solution, such as 'I really need a hat to match the pattern of my dress. Where can I buy one?'

- Ask open-ended questions which encourage the use of imaginative and descriptive language.

- Encourage children to add additional resources or use equipment in creative ways to support their play.


Add pattern-making resources, such as clay tools, wheels and patterned rollers and a sand tray with damp sand (this can - be a deep sand tray or a shallow tray on a table).

Learning opportunities
- Working as part of a group, co-operating and negotiating
- Beginning to use more complex language
- Creating and talking about simple patterns
- Using small equipment with increasing skill


- Model the use of key vocabulary, using descriptive and comparative language.

- Ask open-ended questions about the patterns.

- Support children's conversations, encouraging them to communicate what they are doing, and why.

- Observe and where appropriate, extend children's play.


Add Compare Bears in a wicker basket, Compare Bear pattern and sequencing cards (or similar) on a fabric table cover patterned with bears, clipboards and markers.

Learning opportunities
- Working as part of a group, co-operating and negotiating
- Using talk for a variety of purposes
- Writing for a range of purposes
- Beginning to create simple patterns
- Looking closely at similarities, differences and patterns


- Model the use of mathematical language such as 'same because ...', 'different because ...'

- Support children's conversations, encouraging them to communicate what they are doing, and why.

- Encourage children to continue, repeat and create simple patterns.


Add ready-mixed paint in shallow trays, paper in assorted shapes and sizes, objects of varying shapes and sizes for making patterns such as blocks, sponges, corks, wheels, balls and wooden printing blocks.

Learning opportunities
- Operating independently within the environment
- Using language for a variety of purposes
- Using language such as 'circle' or 'bigger' to describe shape and size
- Selecting and using appropriate tools
- Using a range of small equipment
- Exploring colour and shape in two dimensions


- Support the children as they explore the materials.

- Encourage the children to discuss what they are doing, and why.

- Introduce and model the use of mathematical language.


Add newly-made play dough or damp clay with rolling pins and a wide variety of pattern-making tools such as patterned rollers, clay tools, wheels, dough cutters or stamps on patterned plastic covered fabric, patterned paper plates.

Learning opportunities
- Showing curiosity
- Having a positive approach to new experiences
- Making marks with non-permanent media
- Asking questions about how and why things work
- Using one-handed tools
- Exploring patterns


- Observe children's achievements and plan to extend their learning appropriately.

- Encourage children to articulate what they are doing, and why.


Add assorted fiction and information texts about pattern, lined, squared and blank paper, assorted markers, crayons, a photocopier paper box covered with squares of fabric with different patterns and matching loose squares of fabric.

- Learning opportunities
- Working together as part of a group
- Exploring books
- Continuing, recreating and creating patterns
- Noticing similarities and differences
- Exploring 2D patterns


- Share books with individuals and pairs of children.

- Model the use of information texts and the language of stories.

- Support the children as they create patterns.

- Ask questions about what the children are doing, and why.

- Support children as they sort the patterned squares.


It's really important that outdoor play isn't a repeat of indoors. In general, it should extend learning and offer opportunities for children to work on a larger, noisier or messier scale or to explore the natural or built environment.

Consider reminding the children about games they have played, such as 'Follow the Leader', which can include different movement patterns, such as 'hop, hop, jump, hop, hop, jump'. Or encourage children to explore patterns in rhythm - provide dustbin lids, old saucepans, woks and other metal cooking pans with wooden spoons so that the children can make lots of noise outdoors. If the children are enjoying drawing patterns on a small scale indoors, provide large playground chalks, buckets of water and decorators' brushes so they can make patterns on a larger scale.

Add large, laminated visual images of patterns in the environment, including natural patterns such as plants and butterflies and the built environment, such as bricks, fences, paving slabs and tiles, digital cameras, crayons, clipboards and paper, and information texts about pattern.

Learning opportunities
- Working as part of a small group or pair
- Using talk to connect ideas and explain what is happening
- Finding and creating patterns
- Investigating materials
- Using ICT to support learning
- Manipulating objects


- Support children as use the images and books to make connections with their own environment.

- Let children use the digital cameras to record patterns around them.

- Support children as they make rubbings of patterns, or use markers to draw patterns.

- Ask open-ended questions: can you find a pattern that you like? Where do you think we can find another repeating pattern like the bricks? I wonder if we can find a pattern with circles in it?

Problem Solving, reasoning and numeracy

EYFS Requirements: Children must be supported in developing their understanding of Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy in a range of contexts in which they can explore, enjoy, learn, practise and talk about their developing understanding. They must be provided with opportunities to practise these skills and gain confidence and competence in their use.

Babies' and children's mathematical development occurs as they seek patterns, make connections and recognise relationships through finding out about and working with numbers and counting, sorting and matching and shape, space and measures. Children use their knowledge and skills in these areas to solve problems, generate new questions and make connections across other areas of Learning and Development.

Positive Relationships: Give children time, space and encouragement to discover and use words and mathematical ideas, concepts and language in child-initiated activities.

Principles into Practice Card, Learning and Development - Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy, EYFS 2007

Exploring children's Interests

Tuning in

Making time to talk to parents and carers is an important way of finding out about children's current interests and about what matters to them. Such information helps practitioners provide a curriculum that is relevant and meaningful.

Having an existing interest in a particular theme means that children approach it with enthusiasm and expertise, giving them confidence and increased motivation to engage in the activities provided. Children can use this expertise best in carefully planned, open-ended learning opportunities without prescribed uniform outcomes.

Enhancing provision

Any significant interest that a child or children may have should be explored by enhancing a setting's continuous provision - that is, by adding theme-based resources to the areas of provision that is available daily to children and should comprise:

- role play
- small-world play
- construction play
- sand and water
- malleable materials
- creative workshop area
- graphics area
- book area.

By taking this approach, children can choose to engage with the theme or pursue their own interests and learning independently. Adults need to recognise that children require a suitable length of time to explore any interests in depth and to develop their own ideas.


If children's interests are to be used to create the best possible learning opportunities, the adult role is crucial.

Adults need to be able to:

- enhance continuous provision to reflect children's interests

- use enhancements to plan meaningful learning opportunities across all areas of the EYFS

- know when to intervene in children's play and when to stand back

- recognise that children will need a suitable length of time to explore any area of provision to develop their own ideas

- model skills, language and behaviours

- recognise how observation, assessment and reflection on children's play can enhance their understanding of what young children know and recognise how these should inform their future planning.

Areas of learning
- Personal, social and emotional development
- Communication, language and literacy
- Problem solving, reasoning and numeracy
- Knowledge and understanding of the world
- Physical development
- Creative development

Book box

There are some great storybooks and information texts available about pattern. Remember to use the local library and encourage families and members of the local community to share books:

The Willow Pattern Story by Allan Drummond (North South Books) The author retells a story heard as a child, one of many invented to explain the landscape on willow pattern china, popular for the last 200 years. In this, two young Chinese lovers are punished by one's cruel mandarin father.

Pattern Fish written by Trudy Harris and illustrated by Anne Canevari Green This reveals a world of pattern under the sea, and a great big shark.

Pants written by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Nick Sharratt (Picture Corgi) Here is a a hilarious and unashamedly silly celebration of pants of every size and type - frilly, jewel-encrusted, baggy, 'lighting up at night pants', 'special pants for driving the car', written in the style of a playground rhyme.

Washing Line by Jez Alborough (Walker Books) Lift the flaps to reveal who owns those thin stripy socks, that extra-long-sleeved jumper, that enormous scarf, that tiny dress, all hanging on the washing line.

My Mum and Dad Make Me Laugh by Nick Sharratt (Walker Books) This stars a dad obessed by stripes, a mum in love with spots and a boy who just loves plain.

Elmer by David McKee (Anderson Press) Any of the long-standing favourite titles about the patchwork elephant remain a great way to explore colour and pattern.

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (North South Books) In this classic tale, the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean discovers the real value of beauty and friendship.


Bumpy Books: Patterns by Emily Bolam (board book, Campbell Books) Ten embossed pages alternate between patterns and a host of friendly animals and objects.

Patterns by Nicola Tuxworth (Learn-a-word Book, Lorenz Books) This features over 30 enchanting colour action photographs.

Shape and Pattern by Henry Pluckrose (Knowabout series, Franklin Watts)

Pattern and Shape by Karen Bryant-Mole (Marmaduke Maths series, Evans Brothers)

I See Patterns by Susan Ring (Yellow Umbrella Books)

Animal Pattern written by Cynthia Cappetta and illustrated by Christine Mau (Innovative KIDS)

Professional titles

- Maths Outdoors by Carole Skinner

- Let's Pretend Maths by Helen Williams

- Maths in Stories by Judith Stevens

All available from BEAM (www.beam.co.uk).

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