Early Years Mathematics

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By Hilary White

Mathematics can strike fear into the hearts of the many who regard themselves as ‘no good at maths’. With this in mind, it’s useful to reflect on how often we use mathematical skills without even thinking about it.

child counting

From the child who judges height and distance when climbing a tree to the highly skilled accountant, we all rely on our inherent ‘mathematical mind’. The EYFS framework recognises the importance of maths by giving it the status of a ‘specific’ area of learning.

Drawing on the basic skills covered in the prime areas of learning, the exploration of number, shape, pattern and measure lays essential foundations for the child’s development and learning. With a little bit of thought and planning, maths can offer a fun and exciting way of discovering how the world works – throughout the early years and beyond.

Click on any of the following activities to access the full instructions, downloadable worksheets and curriculum links:


  1. Caterpillar Counting This activity allows children to create quantities for themselves, as well as count and compare them.
  2. Number Fishing This activity gives children the opportunity to practise counting and match numerals with their corresponding quantities.
  3. Exploring Numerals Finding numerals in the environment helps children to discover that numbers are all around us.

Shape, space and measure

  1. Shape Printing This activity allows children to explore plane (2 dimensional) shapes and discover the link they have with solid (3 dimensional) shapes.
  2. Patterns This activity offers a simple way of creating a pattern, and also shows children that patterns are repeatable.
  3. Bigger, Taller, Heavier Than … This activity offers a straightforward sensory introduction to exploring and measuring mathematical properties.

Caterpillar Counting

What to do:

Gather together a collection of furry craft pipe cleaners and coloured wooden beads. Show the children how to create ‘counting caterpillars’ by threading the beads onto the pipe cleaners. Aim to make each quantity from one to ten – and beyond if the children are ready. Encourage the children to count out the beads before making the caterpillars. Once the beads have been threaded, show them how to move each bead along the pipe cleaner as they count. Push the beads to the ends of the caterpillars, and set them out in a row from one to ten. With older children, introduce simple addition by putting two caterpillars side by side and counting the total number of beads.

Activity notes:

  • This activity presents children with number in a linear form, allowing them to count the beads on each caterpillar (1, 2, 3 etc). It also shows each quantity as a separate group – the ‘one’ caterpillar, the ‘two’ caterpillar, the ‘three’ caterpillar and so on. Placing the caterpillars in a right-angled triangle format offers a clear visual demonstration that the one to ten number series has one more each time.
  • Choose the same colour bead for each separate caterpillar (for example, blue for one, yellow for two, purple for three and so on). This shows the children that all the beads making up a quantity go together.
  • Choose contrasting colours for the beads and the pipe cleaners, for example, yellow on blue. This makes it easier for children to recognise each separate bead as they count.
  • Moving beads along while counting helps the child with one-to-one correspondence.

What to look out for:

How far from one onwards can each child count? Do they show understanding of one-to-one correspondence by touching/moving each bead as they count? Can they compare two caterpillars and pick out the one with the longer/shorter row of beads? Are they able to put the caterpillars in order from one to ten and ten to one? Are three-and-a-half-year olds able to count the total number of beads in two caterpillars?

EYFS / Mathematics / Numbers:

  • 22-36 months: Selects a small number of objects from a group when asked, for example, ‘please give me one’, ‘please give me two’.
  • 22-36 months: Recites some number names in sequence.
  • 22-36 months: Knows that a group of things changes in quantity when something is added or taken away.
  • 30-50 months: Recites numbers in order to 10.
  • 30-50 months: Knows that numbers identify how many objects are in a set.
  • 30-50 months: Shows curiosity about numbers by offering comments or asking questions.
  • 40-60+ months: Counts up to three or four objects by saying one number name for each item.
  • 40-60+ months: Counts objects to 10, and beginning to count beyond 10.
  • 40-60+ months: Counts out up to six objects from a larger group.
  • 40-60+ months: Counts an irregular arrangement of up to ten objects.
  • 40-60+ months: Finds the total number of items in two groups by counting all of them.
  • 40-60+ months: Says the number that is one more than a given number.
  • 40-60+ months: In practical activities and discussion, beginning to use the vocabulary involved in adding and subtracting.
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