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Exploring Problem-Solving in Early Years Mathematics | EYFS/KS1

Image of Dr Helen J Williams

This webinar will provide headteachers, mathematics leads, teachers and teaching assistants with practical guidance and methods they can use to nurture and develop pupils’ problem-solving skills in mathematics.

maths problem solving for reception college

Webinar Duration: 46 minutes (approx.)

Problem-solving has long been at the heart of the mathematics curriculum. Teaching children how to problem solve in mathematics can support children’s ability to critically evaluate, encourage independence and develop their skills in reasoning and creativity. It is also an essential part of developing mastery of the subject.

In this webinar the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM), who aim to support the teaching and learning of mathematics in the UK, will explore strategies that schools can use to approach problem-solving with the youngest pupils which are creative and engaging and reflect a better understanding of the needs of the learner.

Since 1994, Helen has been an independent educational consultant specialising in developing the teaching and learning of primary mathematics. In July 2014, she completed her doctorate with the University of Roehampton, London. She is interested in engaging all learners mathematically, and how we might nurture effective and supportive learning communities in classrooms in a current educational climate geared to high-stakes testing. Helen is passionate about all children being given opportunities to become confident mathematical thinkers, through the establishment of a classroom culture that nurtures curious learners.

Helen has taught children across the full primary range and has a particular interest and expertise in early years and KS1 mathematics. Her work involves researching and teaching mathematics alongside colleagues in school and contributing to in-service training courses and conferences. Helen is a long-term, active member of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM).

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Maths problem-solving activities for Early Years settings

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Maths problem-solving activities for Early Years settings

Critical thinking doesn’t have to be a daunting prospect. There are simple, effective and exciting ways to encourage children’s mathematical investigation and exploration, says Judith Dancer…

Maths is a subject many adults lack confidence in. Having struggled with it at school they often avoid it, wherever possible, when grown up.

But if maths seems scary for some people, then problem solving in mathematics can cause even more anxiety. There is no ‘safety net’ of knowing the ‘correct answer’ beforehand as problem solving lends itself to investigation and exploration with lots of possible tangents.

Understandably this is often the area of maths where many practitioners feel least confident, and where young children, who are not restrained by right answers, feel the most enthused and animated.

The non-statutory Development Matters Guidance , as part of ‘creating and thinking critically’ in the Characteristics of Effective Learning, identifies that practitioners need to observe how a child is learning, noting how a child is:

● thinking of ideas;

● finding ways to solve problems;

● finding new ways to do things;

● making links and noticing patterns in their experience;

● making predictions;

● testing their ideas;

● developing ideas of grouping, sequences, cause and effect;

● planning, making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal;

● checking how well their activities are going;

● changing strategy as needed;

● reviewing how well the approach worked.

All of these elements are, at one time or another, part of the problem identifying and solving process – although not at the same time and in the same problem.

Role of the adult

Problem solving in mathematics for young children involves them understanding and using two kinds of maths:

● Maths knowledge – learning and applying an aspect of maths such as counting, calculating or measuring.

● Maths thinking skills – reasoning, predicting, talking the problem through, making connections, generalising, identifying patterns and finding solutions.

The best maths problems for children are the ones that they identify themselves – they will be enthused, fascinated and more engaged in these ‘real’, meaningful problems.

Children need opportunities to problem solve together. As they play, they will often find their own mathematical problems.

One of the key roles of practitioners is to provide time, space and support for children. We need to develop situations and provide opportunities in which children can refine their problem-solving skills and apply their mathematical knowledge.

You can effectively support children’s developing problem-solving strategies through:

● Modelling maths talk and discussion – language is part of maths learning because talking problems through is vital. Children need to hear specific mathematical vocabulary in context. You can promote discussion through the use of comments, enabling statements and open- ended questions.

● Providing hands-on problem solving activities across all areas of the setting – children learn maths through all their experiences and need frequent opportunities to take part in creative and engaging experiences. Maths doesn’t just happen in the maths learning zone!

● Identifying potential maths learning indoors and outdoors – providing rich and diverse open-ended resources that children can use in a number of different ways to support their own learning. It is important to include natural and everyday objects and items that have captured children’s imaginations, including popular culture.

Problem solving possibilities

Spell it out.

This experience gives children lots of opportunities to explore calculating, mark making, categorising and decisions about how to approach a task.

What you need to provide:

● Assorted containers filled with natural materials such as leaves, pebbles, gravel, conkers, twigs, shells, fir cones, mud, sand and some ‘treasure’ – sequins, gold nuggets, jewels and glitter.

● Bottles and jugs of water, large mixing bowls, cups, a ‘cauldron’, small bottles, spoons and ladles.

● Cloaks and wizard hats.

● Laminated ‘spells’ – e.g. “To make a disappearing spell, mix 2 smooth pebbles, 2 gold nuggets, 4 fir cones, a pinch of sparkle dust, 3 cups of water”.

● Writing frameworks for children’s own spell recipes, with sparkly marker pens and a shiny ‘Spell Book’ to stick these in and temporary mark-making opportunities such as chalk on slate.

The important thing with open-ended problem-solving experiences like this is to observe, wait and listen and then, if appropriate, join in as a co-player with children, following their play themes.

So if children are mixing potions, note how children sort or categorise the objects, and the strategies they use to solve problems – what happens if they want eight pebbles and they run out? What do they do next?

When supporting children’s problem solving, you need to develop a wide range of strategies and ‘dip into’ these appropriately. Rather than asking questions, it is often more effective to make comments about what you can see – e.g. “Wow, it looks as though there is too much potion for that bottle”.

Acting as a co-player offers lots of opportunities to model mathematical behaviours – e.g. reading recipes for potions and spells out loud, focusing on the numbers – one feather, three shells…

Going, going, gone

We all know that children will engage more fully when involved in experiences that fascinate them. If a particular group has a real passion for cars and trucks, consider introducing problem-solving opportunities that extend this interest.

This activity offers opportunities for classifying, sorting, counting, adding, subtracting, among many other things.

● Some unfamiliar trucks and cars and some old favourites – ensure these include metal, plastic and wooden vehicles that can be sorted in different ways.

● Masking tape and scissors.

● Sticky labels and markers.

Mark out some parking lots on a smooth floor, or huge piece of paper (lining paper is great for this), using masking tape. Line the vehicles up around the edge of the floor area.

Encourage one child to select two vehicles that have something the same about them. Ask the child, “What is the same about them?”. When the children have agreed what is the same – e.g. size, materials, colour, lorries or racing cars – the child selects a ‘parking lot’ to put the vehicles in. So this first parking lot could be for ‘red vehicles’.

Another child chooses two more vehicles that have something the same – do they belong in the same ‘parking lot’, or a different parking lot? E.g. these vehicles could both be racing cars.

What happens when a specific vehicle could belong in both lots? E.g. it could belong in the set of red vehicles and also belongs in the set of racing cars. Support the children as they discuss the vehicles, make new ‘parking lots’ with masking tape, and create labels for the groups, if they choose.

It’s really important to observe the strategies the children use – where appropriate, ask the children to explain what they are doing and why.

If necessary, introduce and model the use of the vocabulary ‘the same as’ and ‘different from’. Follow children’s discussions and interests – if they start talking about registration plates, consider making car number plates for all the wheeled toys outdoors, with the children.

Do the children know the format of registration plates? Can you take photos of cars you can see in the local environment?

Camping out

Constructing camps and dens outdoors is a good way to give children the opportunity to be involved in lots of problem-solving experiences and construction skills learning. This experience offers opportunities for using the language of position, shape and space, and finding solutions to practical problems.

● Materials to construct a tent or den such as sheets, curtains, poles, clips, string.

● Rucksacks, water bottles, compass and maps.

● Oven shelf and bricks to build a campfire or barbecue.

● Buckets and bowls and water for washing up.

Encourage the children to explore the resources and decide which materials they need to build the camp, and suggest they source extra resources as they are needed.

Talk with the children about the best place to make a den or erect a tent and barbecue. During the discussion, model the use of positional words and phrases.

Follow children’s play themes – this could include going on a scavenger hunt collecting stones, twigs and leaves and going back to the campsite to sort them out.

Encourage children to try different solutions to the practical problems they identify, and use a running commentary on what is happening without providing the solution to the problem.

Look for opportunities to develop children’s mathematical reasoning skills by making comments such as, “I wonder why Rafit chose that box to go on the top of his den.”

If the children are familiar with traditional tales, you could extend this activity by laying a crumb trail round the outdoor area for children to follow. Make sure that there is something exciting at the end of the trail – it could be a large dinosaur sitting in a puddle, or a bear in a ‘cave’.

Children rarely have opportunities to investigate objects that are really heavy. Sometimes they have two objects and are asked the question, “Which one is heavy?” when both objects are actually light.

This experience gives children the chance to explore really heavy things and explore measures (weight) as well as cooperating and finding new ways to do things.

● A ‘building site’ in the outdoor area – include hard hats, builders’ buckets, small buckets, shovels, spades, water, sand, pebbles, gravel, guttering, building blocks, huge cardboard boxes and fabric (this could be on a tarpaulin).

● Some distance away, builders’ buckets filled with damp sand and large gravel.

● Bucket balances and bathroom scales.

With an open-ended activity such as this, it is even more important to observe, wait and listen as the children explore the building site and the buckets full of sand and gravel.

Listen to the discussions the children have about moving the sand and the gravel to the building site. What language do they use?

Note the strategies they use when they can’t lift the large buckets – who empties some of the sand into smaller buckets? Who works together collaboratively to move the full bucket? Does anyone introduce another strategy, for example, finding a wheelbarrow or pull-along truck?

Where and when appropriate, join in the children’s play as a co-player. You could act in role as a customer or new builder: “How can I get all this sand into my car?”; “How much sand and gravel do we need to make the cement for the foundations?”.

Extend children’s learning by modelling the language of weight: heavy, heavier than, heaviest, light, lighter than, lightest; about the same weight as; as heavy as; balance; weigh.

Judith Dancer is an author, consultant and trainer specialising in communication and language and mathematics. She is co-author, with Carole Skinner, of Foundations of Mathematics – An active approach to number, shape and measures in the Early Years .

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Early math review

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Early Years Guide

3 Reception Early Years maths pupils in different posed showing their levels of mathematical understanding


The first few years of a child’s life are especially important for mathematics development . For many education experts, no other group represents a greater opportunity to improve mathematical standards than children in the early years.

The more grounded in mathematical concepts young children become, the better their later outcomes. Conversely, research shows that children who start behind in mathematics tend to stay behind throughout their educational journey.

On this page, we’ll examine:

What do we mean when we talk about Early Years?

The UK government published the Statutory Framework for the early years foundation stage in March 2017. It sets standards for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years old.

Areas of learning

The EYFS framework outlines seven areas of learning :

Mathematics in EYFS

In the context of mathematics, the framework says children must be given opportunities to develop their skills in the following areas:

Revised guidance

The DfE published revised guidance in March 2021 to take effect in September 2021.

The mathematics component now incorporates many elements of the mastery approach.

Specifically, the revised framework says:

By providing frequent and varied opportunities to build and apply this understanding — such as using manipulatives, including small pebbles and tens frames for organising counting — children will develop a secure base of knowledge and vocabulary from which mastery of mathematics is built.

In addition, it is important that the curriculum includes rich opportunities for children to develop their spatial reasoning skills across all areas of mathematics including shape, space and measures.

Early Learning Goals

The latest framework has the following early learning goals for mathematics:

Children at the expected level of development will:

Numerical patterns

Learning in the early years

The first few years of a child’s life are especially important for mathematics development , says the National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics.

Research shows that early mathematical knowledge predicts later reading ability and general education and social progress.

As young as eight months old, children are developing an awareness of number names , and include these in their speech, as soon as they begin to talk. As children listen to the talk around them, they are introduced to numbers through opportunities that occur in everyday life, and experience a variety of number rhymes. This supports their growing knowledge of number names.

According to the NCETM, there are:

Six key areas of mathematical learning

Cardinality and counting, composition.

Looking briefly at each in turn:

When children understand the cardinality of numbers , they know what the numbers mean in terms of knowing how many things they refer to.

Comparing numbers involves knowing which numbers are worth more or less than each other.

Learning to ‘see’ a whole number and its parts at the same time is a key development in children’s number understanding.

Developing an awareness of pattern helps young children to notice and understand mathematical relationships.

Shape and space

Mathematically, the areas of shape and space are about developing visualising skills and understanding relationships, such as the effects of movement and combining shapes

Measuring in mathematics is based on the idea of using numbers of units in order to compare attributes , such as length or capacity.

Learning to count in the early years is a fundamental skill and key to mastering mathematical concepts in the future, but there’s more to it than you might think, says Sabrina Pinnock, a primary school teacher in Yorkshire.

According to researchers Rochel Gelman and C.R. Gallistel, these are the steps needed to successfully count :

Assessing children to find out which step they are struggling with is key to helping them overcome difficulties and become confident counters.

Illustration of maths student having number sense and learning to count.

How do children develop counting skills?

Very young children start to count spontaneously and later begin to refine their skills by pointing their finger at the objects they are counting.

They will often try to get all the names of the numbers they know into their count as they pass their finger along the objects. They also reuse numbers. If they have not finished and they have used up all their known numbers, they will begin using the same numbers again. For example, a child might decide to count eight shells she collects at the beach. She might line them up carefully, tag numbers to them by pointing as she slides her finger along the shells, quickly counting out loud, “one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three, four, five, one, two, three.”

In their drive to make meaning, children are eager to experiment as they acquire new small bits of mathematical knowledge. It is extremely important to respect their developing understanding and not expect “perfect” counting sequences.

By valuing children’s partial understanding, children will develop enthusiasm for numbers and become confident mathematicians.

Activities to boost number sense in Reception Year

Children need lots of opportunities to develop number sense and deepen their conceptual understanding. Here are some simple activities to get your Reception Year learners counting:

Crowd control

Display the number of children allowed in each area using pictorial representations of cubes on a 10 frame. Once the children begin to realise how many are allowed in the area, they start to discuss the meaning of more and less. For example, “no more children are allowed in,” or “you can come in because one more than three is four.”

Encourage children to show numbers using their fingers above their head. “Bunny ears six” means they place their fingers above their head to show six. They may decide to use three fingers on each hand. As they become more confident, you could introduce swapping, where they show the same number but with a different configuration of fingers, in this case two and four, or five and one.

Grouping straws

Each morning, drop different amounts of art straws all over the carpet. Say something like, “oh no class, I can’t believe it. I’ve dropped all my straws again. They were all in 10s. Can you help me?” This activity helps children consolidate counting objects and gets them to think about stopping after they have made 10. Providing elastic bands helps them to keep track of their groups of 10.

Fastest 10 frames

This game can help distinguish between those who have developed a good understanding of number sense and those who need further support. Give each child their own frame and cubes. Tell them a number and observe how they place the cubes on the frame. If the children are working with the number eight, do they say each number name as they place the cube on the frame, or do they realise eight is two less than 10? If so, they should be able to place the cubes down faster than other children.

What do they do when you say the next number? For example, for the number five, do they automatically remove three cubes, or do they remove all of the cubes and start over counting from one to five?

Everyday questions to develop number sense

These questions for children aged five to six help develop their number sense and let them practice using mathematical terms.

When prepping lunch or a snack, count out the different types of food with your child, and as you lay the table, count out the different items. Ask your child questions like:

Practice using the terms more than, fewer than and as many as by asking:

Remember to practice each sentence:

When counting, make sure that you count one number for one item to strengthen your child’s sense of one-to-one correspondence.

Number Rhymes

Carefully select number rhymes to include those that children are familiar with from home. Make sure the rhymes include:

Problem solving, reasoning and numeracy

The EYFS requires children to be supported in developing their understanding of problem solving, reasoning and numeracy in a broad range of contexts in which they can explore, enjoy, learn, practise and talk about their developing understanding. They must be provided with opportunities to practise these skills and gain confidence.

Young children learn best through play. For their learning to be effective, they need sensitive and informed support from adults.

All children can be successful with mathematics, provided they have opportunities to explore ideas in ways that make personal sense to them and opportunities to develop concepts and understanding. Children need to know that practitioners are interested in their thinking and respect their ideas.


Maths — No Problem! Foundations is designed with all the theory and rigor that underpins a true mastery approach. It meets all the requirements of the national curriculum’s Early Years Foundation Stage. But Maths — No Problem! Foundations doesn’t shy away from embedding learning through play in Reception.

Genuine learning through play in the early years is something the team at Maths — No Problem! gets very excited about. What may appear to be simple games are actually carefully designed activities that have a deep maths mastery focus.

Maths — No Problem! Foundations is a complete Reception programme that includes Workbook Journals, Picture Books, and online Teacher Guides with printable resource sheets, all in one package.

The Maths — No Problem! suite of products — including textbooks, workbooks, a revolutionary online assessment tool, world-class teacher training, and much more — is based on the Singapore method, which combines 30 years of international research with painstaking craftsmanship and constant refinement.

Mark making

Research from Carruthers and Worthington into children’s mathematical graphics reveals young children use their own marks and representations to explore and communicate their mathematical thinking. These graphics include:

Young children’s graphical exploration “builds on what they already know about marks and symbols and lays the foundations for understanding mathematical symbols and later use of standard forms of written mathematics,” the researchers said.

In a 2009 publication, the UK Department for Children, Schools and Families, says practitioners should: “Value children’s own graphic and practical explorations of problem solving” and observe “the context in which young children use their own graphics.”

Developing understanding with careful questioning

When children play and interact with other children, there are always opportunities for maths talk to help them develop a deep understanding, says Sabinra Pinnock.

For instance:

Give learners long enough to think about their answer and give their response, but not so long that it disrupts the flow of play.

Adding maths talk activities to your daily routine

Developing maths talk in your daily routine gives learners a chance to understand concepts while using real-life concepts. It also means that children can consolidate what they have learned.

The following activities can get you started:

How many children are at school?

Get your class to work out how many children are at school by placing a picture of themselves or a counter representation on large 10 frames. Ask them questions like:

Sorting and grouping objects as a class

Sorting and grouping objects as a class helps children learn to reason and look for patterns. Give them a variety of buttons each day and ask open-ended questions like, “how can we sort the buttons?” They can use critical-thinking skills to come up with a range of ideas like sorting by size, colour, pattern, and shape.

Vote for a story

First, ask a child to pick two books. Everyone in the class gets to vote (using a piece of lego, for instance) on which of the books should be read. Tally the votes at the end of the day to determine the winner. This can lead to questions such as:

The key to introducing mastery in the early years is to keep activities fun and part of your daily routine. The more learners explore maths through play, the more engaged they become.

Pattern Awareness

Dr. Sue Gifford, emeritus fellow at University of Roehampton, says recent research shows a child’s ability to spot mathematical patterns can predict later mathematical achievement, more so than other abilities such as counting. It also shows pattern awareness can vary a great deal between individuals.

Australian researchers, Papic, Mulligan and Mitchelmore have found pattern awareness can be taught effectively to preschoolers, with positive effects on their later number understanding.

Explicitly teaching pattern awareness links to encouraging “pattern sniffing” with older children in order to develop mathematical understanding and thinking.

What is mathematical pattern awareness?

Patterns are basically relationships with some kind of regularity between the elements. In the early years, Papic et al suggest there are three main kinds:

Children who are highly pattern aware can spot this kind of regularity: they can reproduce patterns and predict how they will continue.

Why is pattern awareness important?

Spotting underlying patterns is important for identifying many different kinds of mathematical relationships. It underpins memorization of the counting sequence and understanding number operations, for instance recognizing that if you add numbers in a different order their total stays the same.

Pattern awareness has been described as early algebraic thinking, which involves:

The activity Pattern Making focuses on repeating patterns and suggests some engaging ways of developing pattern awareness, with prompts for considering children’s responses. Children can make trains with assorted toys, make patterns with twigs and leaves outside or create printing and sticking patterns in design activities.

Repeating Patterns

It is important to introduce children to a variety of repeating patterns, progressing from ABC and ABB to ABBC.

Focusing on alternating AB patterns can result in some young children thinking that ‘blue, red, red’ can’t make a pattern. They say things like, “That’s not a pattern, because you can’t have two of the same colour next to each other.”

Illustration of coloured blocks stacked demonstrating pattern awareness

Foundations — Your Reception Solution

This Early Years mastery programme encourages learning through play and sets children on a path to a deep understanding of maths.

Illustration of two children discussing maths mastery.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory has gained a lot of traction in recent years as educators embrace evidence-based research to inform their evolving practice, says Ross Deans, a KS2 teacher and maths lead in Bournemouth, England.

What is Cognitive Load Theory and why is it important?

Why are new teachers so overwhelmed by tasks that more experienced teachers can juggle alongside multiple other responsibilities?

The answer is simple — new skills demand more attention.

This logic can be applied to any situation. When learning to drive, for example, you focus carefully on every small detail. That mental exertion can be very demanding. Compare that to the feeling of driving after you’ve been doing it for years; you may barely remember the drive, the process is so familiar.

Now put yourself in the shoes of your pupils. Each lesson provides fresh learning and new skills to master. Consider what happens inside your learners’ heads when they encounter new information, new skills and new vocabulary.

Illustration of maths student dealing with many thoughts and speech bubbles to represent cognitive load theory.

Working memory

Cognitive Load Theory , originated by John Sweller, acknowledges that working memory is very limited.

Working memory is the information we hold in our minds while we’re learning. The number of things that we can keep in working memory at one time is approximately four, plus or minus one, and perhaps even less for children.

It’s important to keep this in mind when planning and delivering lessons. If our learners cannot balance more than four things in their working memory, then we need to be very careful about the information we choose to present to them.

Intrinsic versus extraneous load

Intrinsic load includes anything that is necessary to learn a desired skill. In other words, the essential stuff.

Extraneous load is anything that will detract from desired learning. In other words, the stuff that should be reduced as much as possible.

It can be tempting while teaching to embellish lessons with child-friendly imagery and gimmicks. While It’s important to foster enjoyment, we should avoid distracting learners from the essential components of a lesson.

Supporting the transition to long-term memory

While acknowledging the impact of Cognitive Load Theory, we can consider the following to support our learners:

Focused learning objective

First and foremost, we must have a very clear idea of what we want our learners to achieve. Keep the limitations of the working memory in mind and let this guide the content you choose to include in a lesson.

Activate prior learning

At the start of the lesson, you may choose to design a task that encourages learners to retrieve essential skills. This means their working memory can hold on to new learning during the lesson.

Present information clearly

Take time when designing lessons to make sure information is presented clearly. Avoid unnecessary extras which may detract from the learning goal. Keep slides clean and similar in style.

Avoid cognitive overload

In maths, problems are often detailed and complex. Consider breaking questions up into chunks so that learners can digest each part separately. By taking away the final question, you can make a maths problem goal-free.

Maths mastery for Early Years

Given the importance of developing sound mathematical understanding in the early years, the maths mastery approach can be especially useful, considering its focus on problem solving and whole-class learning.

Illustration of purple and green linking cubes to represent the concrete, pictorial and abstract approach to learning maths mastery in the early years.

Early Years and CPA

If you’re teaching the Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract (CPA) approach in the early years, it’s best to focus on C and P. Here’s how to use concrete and pictorial representations effectively.

The CPA model works brilliantly in the primary years but for the youngest learners, moving onto abstract concepts too soon causes difficulties. Spending as much time as possible with concrete objects and pictorial representations helps children master number skills.

By the time they reach Key Stage 2, children need to develop their understanding of numbers by being able to visualise what the concrete looks like in their heads. Therefore, it’s positive that the revised EYFS framework focuses on numbers just to 10, from 20 previously.

If learners develop a deep understanding of numbers to 10, their chances of understanding larger numbers increases significantly.

C is for concrete

Concrete is the “doing” stage. During this stage, students use concrete objects to model problems. Unlike traditional maths teaching methods where teachers demonstrate how to solve a problem, the CPA approach brings concepts to life by allowing children to experience and handle physical (concrete) objects.

Spending time with real-life objects

The theorist Jerome Bruner stresses the importance of children spending time learning maths through tangible items. Spending lots of time using real-life objects, solving real-life problems, and manipulating abstract concrete objects (when ready) such as cubes and counters is essential in the early years.

Ideas include counting out fruit for snack time, comparing, sorting and counting a range of different buttons, pasta, and even ‘magic beans’ linked to specific topics.

Early years and number bonds

By mastering number bonds early on, pupils build the foundations needed for subsequent learning and are better equipped to develop mental strategies and mathematical fluency. By building a strong number sense, pupils can decide what action to take when trying to solve problems in their head.

How to teach number bonds

Children are usually introduced to number bonds through the Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract approach . Here’s just one way to introduce and teach number bonds.

Concrete step

Children start out by counting familiar real-world objects that they can interact with. They then use counters to represent the real-world objects. From here, they progress to grouping counters into two groups.

By putting five counters into two groups, children learn the different ways that five can be made. For example, 3 and 2 as illustrated below. With further exploration, children work out other ways to break numbers into two groups.

Pictorial step

Now that they understand the concept with hands-on objects and experience, children progress to writing number bonds in workbooks or on whiteboards. Early number bond explorations might simply reflect the two groups of counters that they created during the concrete step, along with other combinations.

Abstract step

With the concrete and pictorial steps done and dusted, children progress to representing abstract problems using mathematical notation (for example, 3 + 2 = 5).

Early Years and place value

Number and place value are foundational concepts for all mathematics learning. This means we need to address how to teach place value as early as possible so that pupils can secure their knowledge of the concept.

How do you develop an early understanding of place value in the primary school classroom? Let’s start by defining place value. It is a system for writing numerals where the position of each digit determines its value. Each value is a multiple of a common base of 10 in our decimal system.

Here are some teaching strategies I’ve found useful when helping learners develop an early understanding of place value.

Progress through concepts systematically

Developing an understanding of place value requires systematic progression. Each new concept should build on previous learning experiences so that pupils can gain deeper, relational understanding as they go.

This approach ensures knowledge is developed, refined and applied correctly as numbers become meaningful tools for solving problems rather than just a series of symbols on a page. Most importantly, this starts our learners on the path to becoming confident problem solvers and pattern spotters.

Use the CPA approach to establish meaning

The CPA ( Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract ) approach helps pupils connect a physical representation of a number (concrete manipulatives) to that same quantity as shown in drawings or graphics (pictorial), and finally to the actual written name and symbol for that number (abstract).

Concrete resources are meaning makers. They add meaning to abstract representations of numbers so that when learners progress to the abstract phase, they know what those numbers stand for, what they mean, and how they relate to each other.

If a pupil can identify the meaning of each component in a problem, they are far more confident in how they work to solve it.

Teach the ‘10-ness of 10’

At an early level, spend as much time as possible studying the numbers from 0 to 10, as understanding the 10-ness of 10 is crucial for maths attainment, and it cannot be rushed.

Once this understanding is locked-in, follow this with an introduction to number bonds. Start with the additive relationships between numbers less than 10, then progress to adding and subtracting up to 10. This ensures that learners see 10 as an important ‘base’ number in all of their future maths applications.

Progress to 20, then to 40

I make sure to take my time teaching 10 and teen numbers so that a solid understanding of place value with numbers up to 20 is properly established.

I then extend the place value concept by working with numbers up to 40 — followed by addition and subtraction to 40.

Because pupils have learned to make 10 and use number bonds, they are ready to begin working with multi-digit numbers and regrouping. Focusing on numbers to 40 while developing the concept of place value also allows learners to associate numbers with easily-managed, physical quantities (meaning makers).

Use base 10 blocks for 100 and 1000

The work we’ve done building a gradual understanding of place value will have prepared pupils to progress to three-digit numbers. So we can now move on to studying up to 100.

We start here by developing an understanding of numbers in multiple place value representations. For example, one thousand five hundred is 15 hundreds or 150 tens.

Once they get the hang of that, learners then sharpen their counting, reading, and writing skills for numbers up to 1,000. Moving into addition and subtraction with numbers up to 1,000 — with and without regrouping — is the next step.

Here is where our work establishing an early understanding of place value is key, because pupils will intrinsically know why these algorithms work for three and four-digit numbers. Base 10 blocks are a great tool to help solidify those earlier place value ideas when working with numbers up to the thousands.

Approach larger numbers the same way

The CPA approach is once again our answer to learning place value in larger numbers. Apply those skills and always be on the lookout for chances to extend number and place value concepts.

For example, you can identify and complete number patterns or find missing digits on a number line.

From there you can explore strategies for mental mathematics as well as addition and subtraction for numbers up to 10,000. Take learners even deeper by having them explore place value with an emphasis on multiplication, division, and decimals.

Mastering maths concepts like place value in the early years is not just key to success in the classroom. It prepares learners for a lifetime of deep mathematical understanding by giving them invaluable real-world tools like resilience and problem-solving ability.

And a confident problem solver in maths is a confident problem solver in life.

Well done on making it to the end of our Ultimate Guide to Early Years.

We’ve looked at the definition of Early Years and what the government recommends in its revised guidance, and we’ve taken a deep dive into some of the most-effective strategies for teaching mathematics mastery in the Early Years.

We’ve also discussed Cognitive Load Theory and what it means for teachers in the Early Years classroom.

If you’d like to learn more about Early Years, we recommend checking out the following links:

Also, don’t miss our other Ultimate Guides:

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Paired problem solving in maths

Collaborative learning, where pupils learn and attempt tasks in pairs or groups, can be an effective tool to support individual learning. It is important that collaborative learning opportunities are designed carefully and appropriately. While there are major benefits to group work, there are also significant risks if implemented poorly.

Benefits and dangers of group work:

table showing benefits and dangers of group work

As you watch this video of classroom practice, consider how the teacher:

Whether you’re establishing approaches for collaboration for the first time or reviewing your existing methods, take some time to reflect on what the teacher has done, how they’ve done it, what they might have done differently, and how this might influence your own practice.

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Infusing mindset through mathematical problem solving and collaboration: studying the impact of a short college intervention.

maths problem solving for reception college

1. Introduction

1.1. problem-based approaches in mathematics, 1.2. infusing mindset and shifting students’ beliefs, 1.3. collaboration, 1.4. a mathematical mindset approach to problem-based learning, 1.5. course design, 2. materials and methods, 2.1. data sources, 2.2. data analysis, 2.2.1. student written reflections, 2.2.2. pre and post mathematical problem-solving assessment, 2.2.3. survey analysis, 3.1. a shift in students’ mindset and beliefs about mathematics.

Upon coming to this class, I began to see math differently, as something creative, something without a right or wrong answer, but rather a means of positive struggle, where I embraced all my missteps as part of a growing experience. I took the growth mindset to heart--not only did I apply it academically, I began going to the gym regularly, taking on a vegan diet, and doing even the little things that used to scare me, such as karaoke night (which, might I add, was extremely fun.) (Michelle, Final reflection)
My relationship with math going in was awful, trash, garbage. I hated it and, to be frank, it didn’t make much sense. The way it had been taught to me hadn’t clicked and it didn’t look like it was going to click anytime soon. I was scared for math in college, and honestly considering going from Chemistry to Linguistics to avoid having to take calculus and physics. I am no longer considering switching. (Ricardo, Final Reflection)

3.2. A Shift in Students’ Problem Solving and Collaborative Skills

I was made sure of this today when we approached a problem nearly identical to the one we attempted to solve on the first day. Instead of jumping straight into the concepts we learned in statistics and calculus, my partner and I made visual representations of our thoughts and identified the patterns within the problem. Even as we were doing it, my partner and I realized the differences in our thought processes and how that led to us finding an equation that could represent what we were trying to solve. (Kim, Final Reflection)
This class taught me how to think. It taught me how to make connections within the realm of calculus and with the people around me. Because of this class, I am looking forward to working collaboratively on work, especially math, because I have found that some of the best learning comes from learning with others. (Tasha, Final Reflections)

3.3. Centering Mindset through Mathematics Problems: An Example

When we began to engage in more of the hands-on activities, I started to shift my mindset and continue to try things out. The moment that I believe changed me the most was the cube task. In that task, we worked so well together, and the work was distributed pretty evenly. I felt accomplished, as well as did my group surrounding me. (Chantelle, Final Reflection)
The first problem that really helped open my eyes was the lemon problem. My group thought really creatively about the three methods that we tried, and actually physically manipulating the lemon helped me see why the different methods worked well. But it was at the end of it, when we discussed the problem as a class, that I saw all of my groups’ solutions were basically just different ways to perform summation/integration. It was the first time that I saw the integration formula/graph, and it actually made sense to me. Since that problem I have been riding a kind of high in the class. I now feel like if I try hard enough, and if I think creatively enough, then I can genuinely figure anything out. (Esther, Final Reflection)

3.4. Students Who Resisted the Messages of the Course

Being forced to learn math at a fundamental level was very frustrating at first because beneath the memorization of formulas and functions, it made me feel like I didn’t actually understand it at all. (Marina, Final Reflection)

4. Discussion and Conclusions

Taking this class has been my best decision at college so far. I feel like I will go into my first-year maths courses knowing a secret that no one else knows: Maths does not have to be intimidating. It is not maths’ fault that it has been portrayed to be an evil subject only conquered by "geniuses" and/or white males. With a little love and understanding, maths can be kind, compassionate, and even fun to be around. (Briaunna, Final Reflection)

Author Contributions

Institutional review board statement, informed consent statement, data availability statement, acknowledgments, conflicts of interest.

Share and Cite

Boaler, J.; Brown, K.; LaMar, T.; Leshin, M.; Selbach-Allen, M. Infusing Mindset through Mathematical Problem Solving and Collaboration: Studying the Impact of a Short College Intervention. Educ. Sci. 2022 , 12 , 694.

Boaler J, Brown K, LaMar T, Leshin M, Selbach-Allen M. Infusing Mindset through Mathematical Problem Solving and Collaboration: Studying the Impact of a Short College Intervention. Education Sciences . 2022; 12(10):694.

Boaler, Jo, Kyalamboka Brown, Tanya LaMar, Miriam Leshin, and Megan Selbach-Allen. 2022. "Infusing Mindset through Mathematical Problem Solving and Collaboration: Studying the Impact of a Short College Intervention" Education Sciences 12, no. 10: 694.

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