Would it be possible to turn the world of Maths into an exciting place to be in and find ways into Mathematics for all children and develop a learning environment that supports mathematical thinking?

 By Monika Polakovicova


maths picture


Early Numeracy Approaches

We’re pushing many kids to grasp Maths at higher levels before they are ready. When they struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could make them more interested in maths.​

Early numeracy approaches aim to develop number skills and improve young children’s knowledge and understanding of early mathematical concepts and to build up children’s confidence.​ We want children to be enthusiastic, curious and motivated when it comes to Maths learning. ​

Context of the school

This school is much larger than an average primary school. Children attend Nursery part time and there are four classes in each year group from Reception to Year 6. The proportions of pupils from minority ethnic heritages, those who are learning to speak English as a second language and those who leave or join the school at other than the usual times are higher than those found nationally. The proportions of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals, who are disabled or who may have special educational needs, are below the national average, as is the number with a statement of special educational needs. The school meets the current government floor standards in English and Mathematics. The school has achieved the Healthy School Award, Active mark and Sustainable Schools Award.


Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular group. Researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture and then sense the underline problems.

Action Research

Educational action research can be engaged in by a single teacher, by a group of colleagues who share an interest in a common problem, or by the entire faculty of a school. Whatever the scenario, action research always involves the same seven-step process. These seven steps, which become an endless cycle for the inquiring teacher, are the following:

  1. Selecting a focus
  2. Clarifying theories
  3. Identifying research questions
  4. Collecting data
  5. Analyzing data
  6. Reporting results
  7. Taking informed action


A review of research which informed this study

Many theorists believe that children learn mathematical concepts best through play both at home and in nursery, among these are Tucker, Lindon, Haylock and Cockburn. They all believe that children learn best through practical meaningful experiences that are purposeful to the child. Similarly, Wood and Attfield  argued that the early years were particularly important for developing children’s ability and enthusiasm in mathematics. They believe that the more practical activities children experienced the more success they would have in becoming what they call “real-world mathematicians”. There is also the belief amongst these writers and others that the key to children learning through play is having a skilled workforce, practitioners that provide high quality experiences for children who are skilled at supporting children’s learning through play by extending their thinking and building on what they know (Wood, Attfield).

Similarly, the Scottish Government emphasises that “Parents are the first teachers in their child’s learning, and have a key role to play in developing skills as children move through their education.”(Learning Teaching Scotland 2011:1)  Most schools now have a parents committee with parents’ views being sought and acted on. Tucker (2010:140) believes that “what parents can do with their children at home has far greater significance than any other factor open to educational influence”. She believes that an important aspect of how much parents influence their child’s development is their own experiences as a child themselves. Tucker believes that practitioners can positively influence parents by providing support for them, which will benefit their child. She highlights the need for good practice and argues that working in partnership with parents should be a learning experience for both practitioners and parents alike, leading to improved learning for the children. When children meet people for the first time after telling them their name the next thing they usually tell people is their age. Walk into any school and after you ask a child their name you may hear “I am four now! She is only three, I’m bigger than her!” Numeracy and mathematics are important to children from a young age and as practitioners, we should build upon this.

Building mathematical success in the early years could be more effective at present. A large scale study of pre-school experiences (Sammons et al 2002, Siraj-Blatchford et al 2002) found two key factors which predict progress:

  • parents providing a home learning environment, where, for instance, children were encouraged to paint, draw and play with letters and numbers
  • pre-school settings providing adult-led mathematics focused activities, such as number rhymes and games, alongside independent play.

We also know from research that a key focus for early mathematics is developing

  • number sense, especially understanding number symbols, eg ‘the fiveness’ of 5. Other early predictors of success are:
    • recognising numbers as dice and dominoes patterns
    • comparing numbers like 5 and 7, saying which is more
    • predicting the result of adding or taking away one.

After this children need to develop understanding of numbers as made up of other numbers, and number combinations (Geary, 2011; Gifford, 2014).

The good news is that we know a lot about this: it involves approaches which are common in early years settings (Gifford, 2005):

  • playing and playfulness eg blockplay, number rhymes
  • games and activities indoors and out, eg cooking, goal scoring
  • routines eg snacktime, tidying up.

Two important aspects for practitioners to develop are:

  • subitising, or recognising number patterns as on a dice: this develops familiarity with number combinations, eg seeing six as double three
  • problem solving and ‘sustained shared thinking’ (Siraj Blatchford et al, 2002).

The characteristics of effective learning from the EYFS (DfE, 2012) could provide a useful basis for exemplification:

  • playing and exploring
  • active learning
  • creating and thinking critically.

What is needed is a clear progression of ‘big ideas’ to develop number sense – giving guidance on what to look for and how to provide for it. Big ideas would include number values to 10 and 20, comparing numbers and numbers within numbers: contexts would include outdoor and indoor activities and games, like scoring goals or cooking, routines like snack time and rhymes and stories, including opportunities for discussing puzzles and problems.


An Overview of Actions

​Planning has been monitored to ensure coverage of space, shape and measure.  Action Research has been implemented in two classes to focus on Maths, data has been used to inform planning and monitor gaps in the learning. The Gap analysis has been used to inform planning and parents have been notified of our focus this half term. A shop area has been developed in the outdoor area to encourage using and applying.

We tried to change children’s  perception of maths from:​ ”I  can’t do Maths.“, ​ “Maths is boring.“, ​ “Maths scares me.“, ​ “I’ll never need to know this.“  ​to ​  “I can do Maths.”, “Maths is exciting.”​ or  “Maths is fun.”

We planned  activities and experiences through which children explored together and identified the Maths learning in engaging, hands-on fun activities.

Activities were :​

Structured – programmes designed to develop children’s number sense (understanding of quantity and number).​

Informal – Maths games, computer games, role-play activities involving counting, Maths through stories.

We celebrated the 100th day of school on February 10th. Children brought a shirt decorated with 100 objects in preparation for the big day. This was a great way for the children to work creatively with their parents and express their interests. The children showed off their newly created t-shirts during our classroom fashion show.​ We had lots of fun Maths, mini workshops and activities going on and in the afternoon, the Maths magician came and lead an interactive assembly.

All these activities provided: ​

  • opportunities for children to fluently recall knowledge (building on prior knowledge)​
  • develop conceptual understanding​
  • build confidence in problem solving and investigative skills​
  • monitoring of pupil’s understanding

We co-worked with 9 other colleagues from 5 different schools. All members gave feedback, provided some ideas ideas to help resolve the dilemma or impasse to achieve our goals.



Early numeracy approaches have been found to have a positive impact on learning. Early numeracy approaches appear to benefit all groups of children. The most effective early numeracy approaches include small group work and balance guided interaction, with direct teaching and child-led activities.

Research indicates that knowledge of mathematics, of children’s development and development trajectories in mathematics and understanding of the kinds of activities which support early mathematical learning are all important. As a result, professional development is likely to be particularly beneficial in supporting early numeracy approaches, and some assessment and professional development costs are included in this estimate. Additional equipment to support mathematical experiences such as counting, measuring and using money is also likely to be beneficial. Overall the costs are estimated as very low.

In Reception Class (in Spring 1) there were at least 66% children working at 40-60 months in both number and shape, space and measure. And 6.7% were working in number at 40-60+mths and 0% at this level in shape space and measure. (comparing to last year where we had 40% children working at 40-60 months in both number and shape, space and measure and 0% at 40-60+months)​. The attainment was raised by 26% in Number and 30% in Shape, space and measure from Autumn 2.​

Number – Spring 1

We reduced % of children below expectation by 19.9% and increased % of children at or exceeding expectation by 33.4%.

SPRING 2016Number 2014-2015 2015-2016
22-36 months 3.3% 0%
30-50 months 43.3% 26.7%
40-60 months 40% 66.7%
40-60 + 0% 6.7%

Space, shape and measures – Spring 1

We reduced % of children below expectation by 13.3% and increased % of children at or exceeding expectation by 26.7%.

SPRING 2016Shape, space and measures 2014-2015 2015-2016
22-36 months 3.3% 0%
30-50 months 43.3% 33.3%
40-60 months 40% 66.7%
40-60 + 0% 0%



We found that our staff provide lots and varied opportunities for children to revisit and consolidate mathematical understanding. This was evidenced during the observations and in the children’s record of development  where staff assessed where the child needed further support or challenge. We provided a mathematically rich environment where staff facilitated learning through a mixture of both child led and adult initiated activities, indoor and outdoor play;  as discussed during our maths walk around our school. During this, we looked at the provision of resources and discussed how we encourage the use of mathematical language and development of mathematical concepts through varied play experiences. The debate we had allowed us to discuss our aims and values for the children and It  was a good way to allow staff to reflect on their own practice. Staff were providing experiences that were rich mathematically with the practitioner using mathematical language to facilitate learning, asking questions and getting children to think and problem solve.



Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Have staff been provided with professional development to support the introduction of early numeracy approaches?
  2. Have you considered approaches that involve small group work or guided instruction?
  3. How will you monitor the impact of your early numeracy strategy?