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Learning maths at home with children aged 3-7

Learning maths at home might sound daunting but it does not need to be stressful or difficult. It should be fun! Young children can learn a lot by focusing on some key ideas, playing simple games, and exploring the maths they find in their everyday lives. 

This guide aims to give parents some practical tips by answering two questions:

  • What sort of maths are children learning at this age?
  • What simple activities can parents use to help their children learn?

Some important ideas in early maths

There is a lot to learn about maths but at this age it makes sense to focus on a few ideas. It is important to remember that young children might be learning about these ideas for the first time. They will appear to learn something and then forget about it, or learn to use a skill in one situation but then struggle to use it elsewhere. This is to be expected – it happens to everyone when we learn something new. Their understanding will improve over time as they get more and more opportunities to practise.  

The tables below contain some key ideas, along with some examples of everyday situations and activities where you might use this knowledge.

Understanding how numbers work

Idea Example
Counting to ten and beyond ‘There are four oranges in the fruit bowl. One, two, three, four.’
Knowing that the last number reached when counting tells you the number of objects. Knowing that if you count ‘1, 2, 3’ while pointing at a different apple with each number you have counted three apples in total.
Putting numbers in the right order. ‘Three is greater than two but less than four.’
Knowing that any number can be split into smaller numbers. ‘Six is the same as two threes.’

Adding and subtracting numbers

Idea Example
Comparing different amounts. Knowing that the number of toys in one box is ‘more than’ or ‘less than’ the number in another box.
Adding and subtracting numbers. ‘Five minus two is three.’
Using counting to share objects between people. Sharing out toys so that everyone in the family has two each. 
Understanding the meaning of mathematical symbols (+, -, =) ‘There is a plus sign in 2+2 so I need to add the twos together.’

Shapes and space

Idea Example
Naming and describing ­2D shapes. Describing triangles as having three sides.
Learning the correct language to describe the location or size of objects. Using vocabulary like ‘up, down, left, right, below, on top of, inside, outside, big, small, near, and far.’  

Activities for learning maths at home

You can use some simple activities to help children understand these ideas. This isn’t about getting your child to sit down with a textbook. The aim is to pay more attention to the maths in your everyday life and to make it fun! Storybooks, games, songs and everyday routines all provide great starting points for talking about maths.

Storybooks

Reading a storybook together creates lots of opportunities for conversations about maths. Try pausing the story to ask your child some questions about the numbers or shapes in the book (see boxes 1 and 2 below). There are a couple of online resources that make this easy:

  • DREME, a network of early maths researchers, have written some fantastic guides to using popular storybooks to learn about maths.
  • Maths through stories also provides useful resources.
Box 1: Mice on Ice by Eleanor May and Deborah Melmon (age: 3-6 years)

At first, Mice on Ice looks just like a typical children’s book with colourful characters and a fun story. However, it is full of rich mathematics and is a great way to get your child thinking about shapes and how they work. The story is about a group of mice who go ice skating and skate different shapes into the ice.

There are plenty of ways you could extend your discussion of the maths in this book:

Discuss different shapes and their features: ‘What is the name of this shape? How many corners does it have? Are the lines straight or curvy?’

Compare different shapes: ‘How is the triangle different to the square? How are they similar?’

When you identify a shape, try rotating the book and asking your child whether the shape has changed. For example, rotate a triangle and ask ‘is this still a triangle?’ and ‘how do you know?’

This example was taken from a great resource written by the DREME network to support you to interact with your child over this book. It is worth having a look at the full resource here.  Mice on Ice is available to buy as an eBook from Amazon or Kobo.
Box 2: Picture books featuring animals

Lots of children’s picture books include a cast of animal characters. You could use any book that features animals of various shapes and sizes as a good starting point for thinking about size, comparison and measurement.

Here are some ideas for extending a discussion about books with animals in them:

Compare the size and shape of animals. ‘Which is bigger: the elephant or the moth? Which is longer: the fish or the squid?’

Ask your child to think about how they compare to the animals. ‘Do you have bigger ears than the elephant?’  

Games

Some board games can be great for learning maths. For example, snakes and ladders requires children to recognise and understand the numbers on the squares, count out the number on the dice, and add and subtract numbers as they go up ladders and down snakes. You can also make your own games, like the caterpillar game in the example below.

Box 3: The Caterpillar Game

1. Ask your child to draw out two caterpillars with numbered segments like the picture above. 
2. Set up two teams. You could play this game against your child or if you have two children they could play against each other.
3. The aim of the game is to be the first to reach the end of the caterpillar.
4. Each team places their counter on the “start” segment of their caterpillar.
5. Each team throws a dice and then moves their counter along the caterpillar by the number of steps shown on the dice.
6. To finish the game, a team must end exactly on the last segment. If they do not get the right number to land on this square and would overshoot the end of the caterpillar, they don’t move forward on this turn. As they approach the end of the caterpillar, the child will have to work out the number they need to finish and compare this with the number on the dice.

This game comes from Mathematical Reasoning, a research project in the UK which investigated ways of improving children’s ability to think mathematically.

Card games are also useful. The numbered cards can be used to practise counting and the different suits to learn about shapes like diamonds and hearts. This booklet has lots of suggestions for card games parents and children can use to learn maths.

Songs

Children’s songs and nursery rhymes are often very mathematical. For example:

  • Ten Green Bottles requires children to repeatedly subtract one from ten. Encourage your child to use their fingers to show the number of bottles left on the wall.
  • The Wheels on the Bus involves directional language: ‘the wheels on the bus go up and down.’ You can help children understand this language by using your hands to highlight the motion of the bus.

You can find more counting songs on the BBC website.

Everyday routines

Try to pay a bit more attention to the maths in everyday life. Here are some ideas for making normal activities a bit more mathematical.

  • Tidying up. As you do the laundry, count the socks one-by-one with your child. When you’re done, ask, ‘How many socks did we put in the wash?’ Or you could ask your child to count toys as they put them away: ‘how many Lego bricks do you have there? Are there more Lego bricks than soft toys?’
  • Meal times. Ask your child to help set the table. They will need to count out the correct number of knives and forks, and group them in sets. They will also need to understand instructions about location like ‘please put the plates on top of the mats.’
  • Cooking. Cooking relies heavily on understanding maths. It involves following ordered steps on a recipe, adding ingredients in the right amount, and knowledge of units of weight (grams) and volume (litres). The DREME network has produced some tips for talking about maths while cooking and some easy recipes for parents and children to cook together.
Box 4: Finding maths in everyday activities – a walk through the neighbourhood

David and his daughter Emma are taking their daily walk through the neighbourhood. Along the way they find several opportunities to think about maths: 

Emma is playing with some sticks. David asks: ‘how many sticks have you got?’ and then ‘which stick is the biggest?’

Emma notices some traffic signs and asks what they are. After explaining, David asks Emma if she knows what shapes the signs are.

As they come to the end of the walk, David mentions that it is quarter to ten and they need to be home by 11 o’clock. He asks his daughter: ‘how long do we have to get back?’

By Peter Henderson

PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Peter Henderson

Peter is on secondment to The Education Hub from the Education Endowment Foundation, a UK charity which supports teachers to use research to improve their practice. Before he joined us, Peter co-authored five EEF guidance reports and led the EEF’s grant making in maths, literacy, and special educational needs. He also chaired the governing board of a primary school in North London.