Everyday objects and picture books help children to develop early maths

Catherine Gaunt
Friday, January 24, 2020

Picture books and everyday objects can be powerful tools for helping to develop children’s understanding of basic maths, new research shows.

Pine cones are some of the everyday objects that can help children to develop their early understanding of maths, the report says Photo: EEF
Pine cones are some of the everyday objects that can help children to develop their early understanding of maths, the report says Photo: EEF

A new report by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) reviews the best available evidence for early years settings and schools for improving maths for three- to seven-year-olds, highlighting how picture books and everyday items can be powerful tools for engaging children with basic maths concepts.

The early maths guidance gives early years settings and schools five recommendations to help their pupils develop easy maths skills and close the numeracy attainment gap.

It suggests that to develop maths skills through reading, practitioners can ask children to count all the feet of different animals in a picture book, and then show them with their fingers. This simple reading habit can then be practised at home, it says.

Photo: Adobe Stock

The EEF said that the numeracy gap starts before children start school and grows wider throughout primary and secondary school. Once children fall behind, it is difficult for them to catch up.

It is one of five recommendations in the report, which aims to improve early maths skills for all children but particularly those facing socio-economic disadvantage.

In 2018, two-thirds (66 per cent) of disadvantaged children achieved at least the expected level of development for number at the end of the EYFS, compared to four-fifths (82 per cent ) of their peers.

The report also highlights how teachers can use games to help children strengthen their understanding of numbers, for example, a caterpillar whose body is made up of numbers arranged in ascending order.

Teams of pupils race each other to reach the end of the caterpillar by throwing a dice and working out where their mark will land by counting on from where the marker is, in order to finish and win the game.

Everyday activities

It recommends integrating maths into different activities throughout the day - for example at registration and snack time to develop children’s maths skills.

The report uses the example of a nursery class using snack time to help children recognise numbers of objects and connect them to number words.

During snack time the staff would point out ‘We have three oranges that we are going to share out’, while showing the numbers on their fingers. By encouraging the children to see the amount of something rather than only seeing the object, the nursery staff were helping the children to develop the habit of quantifying small groups of objects.

Another recommendation focuses on how useful everyday objects such as pine cones and buttons, and maths resources like interlocking cubes and building blocks, can be for helping children to develop their understanding of maths concepts, such as addition and subtraction.

The report cites evidence that physical whole-body movement and gestures may support maths skills, for example the use of fingers for counting, moving along a physical number line, or jumping and clapping while counting.

The other recommendations in the report focus on:

  • Developing teachers and early years practitioners’ understanding of how children learn maths.
  • Making sure that maths teaching builds on what children already know.
  • Providing high-quality targeted support for struggling children.

The guidance is part of a series providing evidence-based advice for improving teaching in key areas for schools, including behaviour, literacy and science.

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the EEF, said, ‘Maths plays a key role in a every child’s development. Very young children are naturally curious, noticing differences in quantity and the shape of objects. Understanding maths helps children make sense of the world around them, interpret situations, and solve problems in everyday life, whether that’s understanding time, sharing food with their peers, or counting in play.
‘Yet too many children struggle with maths early on and, as a result, risk falling further behind later in school. These pupils are disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged homes. To truly break this link between family income and educational attainment, we have to start early and make sure that all young people - regardless of background - have access to great maths teaching both in the early years and in primary school.’
The EEF said it plans to work with the sector, including through its national Research Schools Network, to build on the report's recommendations with training, resources and guidance.

  • Download the guidance, Improving mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1, here
  • Want to know more about early maths? Judith Twani will be leading a seminar at the Nursery World Show on 7 February. Find out more here

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