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How Young Children Learn Maths

How Young Children Learn Maths

This article is a brief introduction to the different stages of learning maths from babies to children aged five.

Maths really is everywhere, and it is not something that is just acquired when a child goes to school. Every day, young children experience mathematics, and there are lots of ways to help them develop their mathematical skills.

Babies’ and toddlers’ experiences of mathematics

Babies learn about the space around them and begin to understand their routines and sequences of events. This allows them to predict what may happen next and begin to develop a sense of time. They also begin to hear and use some number names, especially those of personal interest, such as their age and door number.

From about 18 months onwards, many toddlers will be learning to say: some number words, pairs of socks and shoes, 1,2,3, some position words (in, on, behind, in front), lots and few. Children at this stage will also be learning how to build with blocks, sort objects with particular characteristics, fill and empty containers, and match shapes to post through shaped holes.

Action rhymes and songs that relate to the number are a great way to make numbers meaningful and fun for such young children. Providing containers of different shapes and sizes to fill with sand, water or objects allows children to experiment with quantities and measures.

Children aged three to four experiencing mathematics

From around the age of three, children tend to say number names in sequence and begin to learn how to count out objects as well as learn what numerals stand for. They can name some shapes and can use words to describe where something is.

Adults can help at this stage by creating a number-rich environment indoors and pointing out numbers outdoors. It is also really fun to have collections of interesting small objects for children to count, sort and classify. When children have a repertoire of number songs, their understanding of these songs can be enhanced by providing props, so they can act out the songs as they sing them.

Children’s understanding of mathematics from age four

At this stage, most children have acquired a great deal of mathematical language that they use spontaneously. They may begin to count beyond ten and represent numbers using their fingers. They will begin to show an interest in solving problems, such as finding a total by counting two groups of objects or sharing out objects to see how many objects each person can have.

Simple board games always incorporate an element of mathematical understanding. From rolling a die and instantly recognising the number it represents or counting the spots to work it out to moving a certain number of spaces forward, children become accustomed to using maths in a fun context. 

Adults can make number lines available for children to use for reference or, even better, make number lines with the children that are laminated and then put up for the children to use in their play. Hopscotch can be a fun way of practising numbers, too. There are also many books about numbers that are very appealing to young children.

By exposing children to mathematics from an early age, the formal learning of maths later becomes much less daunting. Adults have an essential role in ensuring mathematics is an integral part of a child’s experience of life, and those mathematical problems are viewed as fun and exciting.

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