Teaching maths through play in early years care

Play is the natural way that children learn. Through play, children explore, investigate and recreate the world, and is doing so begin to understand it.

For many adults, the words ‘maths’ and ‘play’ may seem to have nothing to do with each other, especially if we had negative experiences of learning maths ourselves. However, maths can be a lot of fun if we help children learn through play and everyday life experiences without the focus being on rote learning of numbers.

Here are some methods we can use to introduce children to maths in ways that they will really enjoy.


Cooking is a really fun way to get children engaging with numbers and beginning to understand measurements and quantities. Children can count out numbers of ingredients, for example how many slices of tomato on a pizza, and even do basic sums, such as adding up how many muffin cases need to be filled.

Even very young children who have just started nursery can get involved and gain knowledge of shapes and geometry, for example by talking about shapes of cookie cutters, bowls, tins and other equipment.

Weighing scales can be used to learn about balancing and weight, especially if the old beam balance style of scale is used, rather than digital ones. Smaller jobs such as switching on the oven and waiting for something to cook is an opportunity to read numbers and begin to get to grips with concepts like temperature and time.

Going to the Shops

Young children in particular love role play, and a game of going to the shops can encompass all kinds of mathematical concepts. A toy cash register and toy money helps them learn number recognition, adding and subtracting and to begin to understand how money works. If you set up a small shop area they can count tins and packets, read numbers on price tags and count items as they pay for them and put them in bags. This type of play is both creative and a great way to lay a foundation of mathematical knowledge.

As well as playing at going to shops such as supermarkets, places such as shoe shops and clothes shops can encourage children to learn about measurements and shoe sizes.

Sand or Water Play

Children enjoy playing with sand and water because it’s such a hands on experience. As well as enjoying themselves, kids learn vital skills through sensory play like this, such as hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

On top of this sand and water play can help them to begin to understand numbers, for example by counting the amount of scoops of sand it takes to fill a bucket. They can also experiment with concepts such as volume, by finding out how much water fits in one container compared to another.

Young children love putting their ideas and theories to the test by physically ‘doing’, and the presence of sand or water allows them to do just that. They will be so engaged that they won’t even realise what they’re learning.

Playing with Blocks

Blocks are a vital part of any nursery toy area and are always popular with children. Although games involving building towers and knocking them over may appear simple, they can be used to teach children basic maths. Playing with blocks increases children’s ability to understand shapes, sizes and patterns, as well as helping them to learn about counting, adding, subtracting and sorting. Care-givers can use blocks as an opportunity to encourage children to consider concepts such as reasoning and problem solving by asking questions such as ‘What can you do to make the block taller?’ or "If we lay them end-to-end, how long do you think they will be?’.

Infusing maths into block play can also help teach social skills such as turn taking, for example by asking questions such as ‘If we all take turns adding a block, how tall can we make the tower?’

Eating Lunch

Even an activity as basic as eating lunch can be used to help children understand maths. Small items, such as grapes or raisins, can be counted out of boxes and onto plates, and counted down again as they are eaten. Plates are a great way to learn about area, for example asking questions about whether a half or a quarter of the plate is taken up by a sandwich. This can also extend to drinks, which can help children to learn about volume and will also help to teach them the basics of volume.

Encouraging children to engage with the food they are eating helps to instill a healthy approach to food as well as a beginning to grasp important mathematical concepts.

Clean Up Time

Clean up time can be made fun as well as educational by asking children to count the objects they are picking up. Labelling boxes or drawers with numbers and asking children to identify the correct ones will be challenging and satisfying for them, as well as making clean up time quicker and easier. Cleaning up can also be used to help children learn about time, for example by asking them to spend five minutes tidying up or by timing them to see how quickly they can do it.

By making clean up time into a game it will be fun for the children, rather than seeming like a chore, and they will also learn something along the way.


There are endless ways to include counting, sums and mathematical concepts in play without making children stressed or scared of learning them. By encouraging children to have fun with numbers from an early age, they will develop a strong foundation in mathematical learning that they can build on as they grow.

Teaching maths through play in early years care