Research School Network: Learning and Play: The Mathematical Way Learning and Play cannot be separated out; they are one and the same.


Learning and Play: The Mathematical Way

Learning and Play cannot be separated out; they are one and the same.

by Billesley Research School
on the

Learning and Play cannot be separated out; they are one and the same. There is no one fixed view of what teaching ought to look like, particularly in the EYFS. The DFE agree with this in their revised Statutory Framework; let’s have a look at what they say about Mathematics:

It is important that children develop positive attitudes and interests in mathematics, look for patterns and relationships, spot connections, have a go’, talk to adults and peers about what they notice and not be afraid to make mistakes.”

I read this and think…PLAY! Clements and Samara (2018) tell us that much of children’s spontaneous play is mathematical, and that teachers can build on such experiences”. And build we must. I value play, pure play, in all its free abandon and messy, loud glory! I also recognise what teaching looks like amongst it all. I recognise how a carefully planned maths curriculum provides the backbone of mathematical play and learning, encouraging children to move forward in their learning. They go on to also tell us that teachable moments alone are far from adequate”. I see how it would be ineffective and unrealistic to see multiple learning opportunities at any one time, for multiple children throughout the day, and to build on these consistently for all and, progressively, through the year. I think I might get a bit lost. So there must be a balanced approach, and a variety of playful maths opportunities in our repertoires.

Pause for Thought

What does teaching look like for me as a playful mathematical practitioner? And what does learning look like for playful mathematical children?

I have taken my inspiration from The Education Endowment Foundation guidance report, Improving Mathematics in The Early Years and Key Stage 1’, to write this blog. Let’s have a look at Recommendation 2 and 3 as we explore the practicalities of providing a planned and playful maths-rich environment.

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Once a powerful teaching input has happened, be that in our whole-class teaching session (i.e. carpet-time) or in small groups (guided work or an intervention), it’s time to let the children do what they do best – embed their learning. It is in their play that they will make physical and meaningful links to what has been taught. The learning is child-led now, and we have the opportunity to step back’ and see what they have taken from our input. At this point, jump in (carefully!) with a well timed comment or observation, adding in mathematical terminology and challenge. Di Chilvers and her team refer to this as serve and return’ talk in their Talk for Maths Mastery’ project. Sustained Shared Thinking (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002; Sylva et al., 2004) is a term we as Early Years educators are probably very familiar with; it is a technique referred to numerous times in educational publications and statutory and non-statutory guidance.

However, as Helen Williams points out, many examples of Sustained Shared Thinking are not in fact mathematical ones. There were few examples of mathematical Sustained Shared Thinking observed in their longitudinal studies. As practitioners we must take time to talk maths’; point out the mathematics in the everyday for the children (it’s amazing how much there is); understand the child’s learning trajectory and help them make progress in that moment; make links in their learning to previously taught concepts in the well designed curriculum; know the children well and respond to their emerging knowledge and mathematical interest; provide support as they test their ideas and decide which resources to use and why; and address misconceptions. The adult is well placed to perform many of these teaching roles and more, whilst making the most of the time when the children are most interested and engaged in learning.

Pause for Thought

How familiar am I with Sustained Shared Thinking? How could I better use opportunities for Sustained Shared Thinking in mathematical play?

When the classroom is set up with well enhanced maths provision, the play becomes extremely powerful and often surprising. Remembering that children learn in an interwoven way, plan for maths to be everywhere! Making the maths as meaningful and true-to-life as possible is also key for high levels of involvement (Leuven Scales); children will engage in mathematical play if the opportunities are authentic. Here are some ideas I have used in my classrooms and settings in the past:

  • Organise resources by size or shape. Label pots with the number of items within them.This is an easy way to thread maths through the everyday tidy-up routines

  • Enhance the role play area with real maths opportunities such as clocks, phones with numeric keypads, the family’s weekly calendar, the height chart (often seen in many family homes). Offer food items and containers of different shapes such as cylinders and cuboids. Keep domestic role play (the home’) a constant area of provision, along with the local shop’ for even more mathematical opportunities such as sorting, counting and money

  • Have a loose parts’ area; maths and art will intertwine beautifully and give the children real opportunities to explore space, shape and patterns. Use mirrors here for exploring symmetry in the reflections

  • Have lots of measuring tools in the construction area such as rulers and measuring tapes (especially the real’ stainless steel ones)

  • Have a variety of number lines; make sure there is a working wall’ which is visible from as many areas of the classroom as possible with numerals and regularly used physical representations of the number. These would be representations you use lots in your teaching (e.g. numicon, tens frames)

  • Remember the maths possibilities of a constant and continuous playdough area; forming numerals on top of a laminated card would not necessarily be the most natural maths which would spring to mind here. Instead, I lean into the children’s interests, for example providing weighing scales, different sized containers and opportunities to count and sort into cake trays for example

  • Have a space for children to use physical manipulatives to self register, Perhaps putting their token’ onto a tens frame

  • Don’t forget about the value in a well resourced water and sand area (yes, even in Reception). It should be enhanced with different sized containers for capacity and comparison play

  • Organise maths buddies’ from older classes who can come and play board games like snakes and ladders, using dice to practise those all-important subitising skills

Pause for Thought

How have I organised my classroom to provide mathematical opportunities? Is maths everywhere? Are children highly involved because the maths feels authentic?

Children are naturally curious, and learn best when they find an activity authentic, and fascinating. We have the responsibility to provide meaningful and playful mathematical opportunities, a maths curriculum which is grounded in excellent understanding of children’s learning trajectories, and careful adult support and teaching. Let’s give children the best mathematical start and empower them to know that, yes, maths IS for them! The EEF guidance report, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1’, reviews the best available evidence to offer five recommendations for developing the maths skills of 37‑year olds. Head here for more!

Aimee Stephens is an Early Years Lead Practitioner and Reception Year Group Leader at The Blue Coat School, Birmingham.

Further reading, influential studies, and citations: – 2

Chilvers, Di (2022): How to recognise and support mathematical mastery in children’s play

Clements and Samara (2019): Learning Trajectories in Early Mathematics Education

Fisher, Julie (2016): Interacting or Interfering?

Williams, Helen (2022): Playful Mathematics for children 3 – 7

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