Numeracy in Early Years

Numeracy is the capacity, confidence and disposition to use mathematics in daily life. Children bring new mathematical understandings through engaging with problem solving. It is essential that the mathematical ideas with which young children interact are relevant and meaningful in the context of their current lives.

Educators require a rich mathematical vocabulary to accurately describe and explain children’s mathematical ideas and to support numeracy development. Spatial sense, structure and pattern, number, measurement, data argumentation, connections and exploring the world mathematically are the powerful mathematical ideas children need to become numerate.

BELONGING, BEING & BECOMING The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia – Learning Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators

Asking questions and problem solving are the backbone of mathematics. As children ask questions and engage in problem solving with educators, peers and on their own, they create their own mathematical understandings. Nurturing and developing children’s confidence and disposition to ask questions requires educators, families and communities to create an environment that celebrates curiosity and enthusiastically explores new and intriguing ideas. Children naturally question things (that’s why they don’t do everything you ask them to do the first time you ask them to do it!) The trick is promoting that curiosity and intrigue in a positive way. Developing capable problem solvers requires time, space and resources. Often the easiest and quickest thing to do is to solve the problem for the child. But in our busy schedules, with so much going on, we need to slow down and allow the child to solve the problem. It takes time and space, but when we can be there to ask the right questions and guide their thinking, children learn to solve problems themselves.

It is essential that the mathematical ideas with which young children interact are relevant and meaningful in the context of their current lives. In the early years, mathematics is not about memorising times tables or even learning how to count. We teach children what numbers mean and how they can be used, because if you know how many friends there are, then you know how many bean bags we need for the game. If you know how full your cup is, you know if you have drunk enough water. If you know what the time is, then you can know how long until it’s time to pack up. Mathematics in real life means so much more than counting from 1-10.

Teaching children to count to 10 is simple and requires little knowledge. But teaching children about numbers and mathematical ideas in real life, as they play and eat and interact, requires a rich mathematical vocabulary. There are powerful mathematical ideas that children need to become numerate. These include: Spatial sense, structure and pattern, number, measurement, data argumentation, connections and exploring the world mathematically. Let’s dive into each and enlarge our mathematical vocabulary.

Spatial Sense

Spatial sense is an understanding of the objects in the physical world around us and our body’s relationship with them. From a very early age children can be learning about size, shape, position, direction, speed, weight, feel and so much more. From the moment they notice their own hand waving in front of them they are developing their spatial sense. In Early Years Learning this can be nurtured and encouraged with:

  • Any kind of construction from blocks for stacking, to motors and robotics.
  • All kinds of musical instruments from rattles for shaking, to outdoor pipes with mallets.
  • Balls for kicking, throwing and catching.
  • Small spaces to hide in, tall things to climb up and large spaces to run around in.
  • All types of puzzles.
  • Recognising different shapes in the world around us, such as triangles on road signs, rectangles on advertising signs, circles on pizzas etc.
  • Discussing the size of your child with objects around them e.g are you taller than this chair? Are you heavier than this box? Are you faster than this Remote-control car?

Young female toddler placing with building blocks

Structures and Patterns

Structures and patterns are all around us. Children that learn to see and understand structures and patterns become very good and predicting and estimating how things will happen and work. Babies are introduced to patterns very quickly as parents instigate routines around sleeping, eating and nappy changing. Cycles emerge as children notice the sun coming up and going down every day, as they come and go to daycare and as their birthday, Easter and Christmas come around each year. In Early Years Learning this can be nurtured and encouraged with:

  • Flexible routines that are predictable.
  • Learning about life cycles such as butterflies and frogs.
  • Pointing out and exploring patterns in materials like sheets or wrapping paper.
  • Games that have cycles like duck duck goose or doggy doggy where’s your bone.
  • Learning about pattern awareness – shapes with regular patterns, repeated. sequence, and growing patterns.
  • Copying patterns – recognizing the “unit of repeat”.


Numbers are the simplest and most accurate way to represent a value in mathematical ideas. Children encounter numbers the moment they’re born, but it will be a few years before they can use them to represent their own mathematical ideas. Teaching numbers is often represented as a class of children all counting to 20 together in perfect unison. 

But in Early Years Learning it is much more organic and real world, such as:

  • Discussions about quantities during mealtimes
  • Playing games such as hide and seek and what’s the time Mr Wolf
  • Music and movement
  • Helping with cooking and counting ingredients
  • In play shopping and using money to buy things
  • Reading stories with numbers – for example, ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’

Young Female Child holding up five fingers whilst playing with My little Ponies at First Steps Atherton


Measurement is giving a numerical representation to the physical attributes of an object e.g.; the length of the table is 2 meters. Children become fascinated with measurement when it is to do with something about themselves I.e. “I am this big” or “I have this many.” 

Measurement is great for teacher-initiated activities and one to one learning. In Early Years Learning Measurement can be taught by:

  • Using water troughs and see-through containers with numbers marking measurements.
  • Stepping out distances across rooms and yards.
  • Turning sticks into rulers that children can use round the yard.
  • Working with tools like tape measures.
  • Cooking and measuring ingredients.
  • Counting how many Lego bricks high a construction is.

plastic measuring cups with cooking utensils at First Steps in Atherton

Data Argumentation

Data Argumentation is simply looking at data that has been collected and discussing it. This allows numbers to give us insight into how much more than mathematics works. If we tally up all of the times that birds come and eat from a bird feeder and when they ate, we would have some data. We can then look at that data and talk about what it might mean. We may find that 2 birds ate from the feeder before 11am, and 11 birds ate between 11am and 1pm. This could mean that birds like lunch more than breakfast. Or it could mean that children are quieter between 11am and 1pm. In Early Childhood Learning we can use data argumentation with experiences like:

  • Collecting data by measuring seedlings as they grow.
  • Collecting data about children’s heights and questioning who has grown the most.
  • Collecting data about the colour of our parents Cars
  • Collecting data about our families
  • Collecting data about the weather

Mathematics is not something that educators teach to children in Early Years Learning. Educators need to connect children to mathematics, Educators are like guides that explore mathematics with children, and lead children to discover new mathematical ideas through their play and interactions. Mathematics is everywhere and its unavoidable! So, educators, families and the community can be using these endless opportunities to instill in children the capability, confidence and the disposition to use mathematical ideas in everyday life.

Play coffee shop at First Steps Atherton

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