Making maths magical through play
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Making maths magical through play

18 March 2022 By Learn Well


Make it sparkly and twinkly, make it squidgy and smelly, make it natural and textured. Let children use real things and lots of them. Let them hold them, move them, squish them, smell them, describe them and yes, count them. Doing the same thing in lots of different ways, using all of the senses, will build a strong sense of number: the awesome one, the tantalising two, the thunderous three, the fabulous four!

These activities all use the Early Mastery Number Trays but you can do most of them with paper plates, baskets, trays, or bowls.

What you’ll need:

Scented Dough Recipe


What you’ll need:

Place all ingredients in the bowl apart from the boiling water. Give them a good stir and then start to add the boiling water, mixing well until it’s all combined and ready to use.

The dough should keep for one or two weeks inside a sealed plastic bag.

TIP: To add colour you could try dying it using natural powders like turmeric, cocoa, and beetroot powder. For a scented dough, add some of our favourite tried and tested aromas: lavender, mint, tea tree oil, cinnamon, and vanilla extract.

Collecting Treasures


Go collecting sticks and stones, pinecones and seashells, flowers, and leaves. Let each child have their own number tray. As they collect say “four” things, let them put their treasures on a table; so that eventually they will have a collection of lots of “fours”. You could take a photograph of each child’s favourite collection and make your own natural number line.

Extend the activity:

Ask them to look for their number…four legs on a table, petals on a flower, buttons on my coat, etc. Talk about one more, one less. Which of their friends has the one more tray, so five? Who has one less? Talk about size. Find four tiny, miniscule, minute things. Find four big things you can fit in your tray. Talk about similarities and differences. Find four things that are the same. What makes them the same? Size, colour, pattern? Find four things that are different. What makes them different?

Squishy, Smelly Maths


Using scented play dough and cutters; let each child roll out shapes and put them in their tray.  Encourage them to make ‘cakes’ by piling up the shapes and maybe put a bead or pebble or star on top. Who can make the tallest/prettiest/wobbliest cake? Each additional layer gives more opportunity for counting. Using scented play dough fill each tray with play dough and then squish loose parts into it. Pebbles, seashells, buttons, beads, pasta and more. Pushing them in and pulling them out is such a lovely way to build those fine motor skills as well as a love of maths.

Marvellous Mark Making

mark making

Ask children to trace the numeral with their finger. Fill the tray with chai seeds, flour, sand, or rice and using their finger or a twig, ask the children to copy their numeral in the tray. Using loose parts (beads, rice, pebbles) fill the numeral. Use fingers (easy) or tweezers (harder). Great for fine motor skills.

How Many Ways?


How many ways can you make nine? Using real objects, big or small, ugly or beautiful; encourage the children to try and be methodical and logical. Can they spot that one and eight is the same as eight and one? Big claps and well done if they spot this!

Split them into groups, so three lots of three and two lots of four plus one…counting and checking along the way that you’ve always got nine. For older children, build fluency and speed of recall by adding a timer and see how quickly they can do it! Can they beat their first time? This seemingly simple activity builds so many essential mathematical skills.

These activities have been taken from Little Learners, a FREE magazine full of early years resources and activities. Click here to read our latest issue and enter our exclusive competition.


Useful blogs:

Provoking curiosity in early years

Play tray inspiration 

How to encourage sensory play with loose parts

Categories: Early Years , Education

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