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There is more to maths than counting!


Monday 19 October 2020

I’m not great at maths. My other half thinks it hilarious that I teach mathematics in a university, when I have no understanding of basic math concepts like distance (the two metre COVID restriction is a real struggle for me). The type of maths I teach is maths that can be seen in young children’s play, daily routines and in the natural world.


Love it or loathe it, maths is part of our everyday lives. Early maths concepts such as shape, size, pattern, measure and even data collection invariably arise during children’s play (Ginsburg, 2009). It’s just a question of opening our eyes.


Open-ended and found materials can be used in many different ways to support early maths. In the garden, twigs can be laid side by side to compare length, width or the number of leaves; they can be counted, or arranged to create basic shapes such as a square or triangle. Similarly, stones and pebbles can be collected and compared by colour, shape, size, texture or weight. Children need lots of opportunities to make comparisons, see similarities and difference and hear the abstract language of mathematics used to describe concrete objects.


Pattern is seen all over the natural world and we should draw children’s attention to it. The sound of raindrops rhythmically plinking on the windowsill; the concentric patterns created as water drops into a puddle; the pattern of petals on a flower or repeating patterns of frost on a window pane. Symmetrical patterns such as those on butterfly wings or the leaf of a tree, when folded over match perfectly. The built environment also provides multiple opportunities for children to identify pattern and shape; square and rectangular windows; circular wheels on toy cars, bikes and vehicles; and brickwork or tiles on buildings. I love asking children to go on a pattern or shape search to see how many shapes they can find in their room, in the hall or in the garden. If the children are old enough they can document these and categorise them, supporting the development of another maths concept (data collection!!).


Parts of the daily routine also provide opportunities for maths. ‘Tidy-up’ time can enable children to match pictures on shelves or baskets to the real item. This is an important math skill as identified in Aistear’s theme of exploring and thinking (NCCA, 2009). Sorting and organising materials in the home corner can be done in many ways; by material (metal, plastic, ceramic), by size (small, medium, large), by use (cup, saucer, pot, fork) or by colour. It takes a lot of practice for young children to make these distinctions, and conversations with adults are a big part of that learning. The amount of maths language an educator uses is significantly related to the growth of young children’s conventional math knowledge (Klibanoff, et al., 2006) but it is most effective when it meaningfully relates to concrete experiences and objects.


Try to see the maths in everyday activities and routines; point out similarities and differences in the learning environment (objects that are bigger and smaller, red or green), name attributes (colour, shape, texture), look for shapes in the environment, sing number rhymes and songs and revisit favourite books to look for the maths concepts within (there are some great examples here). Support for fundamental maths skills does not require drill and practice activities. Instead, use maths vocabulary, look for opportunities to point out shape and pattern and use language associated with maths whenever you can! The key thing is to keep it open-ended play- based and FUN!



Ginsburg, H. (2009). Early Maths Education and How to Do it. In Barbain, O. A. & Wasik, B. H. (eds.) Handbook of child development and early education (pp.403–428). New York: Gilford Press.

Klibanoff, R., Levine, S., Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., & Hedges. L. (2006). Preschool Children’s Mathematical Knowledge: The Effect of Teacher “Math Talk”. Developmental Psychology. 42 (1), 59–69.

NCCA (2009). Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Principles and Themes. Dublin: NCCA.


Sandra O’Neill is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in DCU where she lectures on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education. Her research interests include early childhood educator’s perspectives on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in pre-school classrooms. She is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the University of Sheffield with a focus on early childhood mathematics.

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