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Teach Maths Through Play in Early Years

Are the new-look ELGs pushing us towards an adult-led early years, asks June O'Sullivan

  • Teach Maths Through Play in Early Years

There is trouble in the sector at the moment; the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) are being reviewed and the DfE hasn’t engaged people early enough.

Will they ever learn about the power of communication and involvement? I’ve followed this decision very carefully to understand the rationale behind it. I want whatever stance we take on the changes to be based on objective facts and up-to-date theory.

The proposed changes to the ELGs for mathematics are amongst the most contentious.

So, like any reflective teacher, I got out all my maths books and re-read them, and bought one or two new ones to check if anything has changed (and so should you – re-read Linda Pound, Sue Gifford and Ann Montague-Smith; the research says teachers stop engaging in new ways of doing stuff after three years!).

The suggested changes are based on the view that number is the basic platform for children to “excel mathematically” and that children need to “develop a secure base of knowledge from which mathematical mastery is built.”

Therefore, children should:

  • Have an understanding of number to 10, linking names of numbers, numerals, their value, and position in the counting order;
  • Subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5;
  • Automatically recall number bonds for numbers 0–5 and for 10, including corresponding partitioning facts;
  • Automatically recall double facts up to 5+5;
  • Compare sets of objects up to 10 in different contexts, considering size and difference;
  • Explore patterns of numbers within numbers up to 10, including evens and odds.

I don’t think anyone disagrees that children need to have a solid grasp of number. We all want them to be familiar with mathematical thinking, number and shape so that they move effortlessly from concrete to abstract concepts.

It’s nothing new: in 1999 the National Numeracy Project defined numeracy as “more than knowing about number and number operations”. It advocated four areas of number: the number system; calculations; making sense of number problems, which included money, time and measures, graphs, charts and tables; and shape and space.

So, what’s the issue?

Let children lead

In my opinion, the concerns are all about the teaching.

In early years, we see maths as being best introduced through a sensitive, child-focused balance of play, adult-led planned activities and provocations using the environment, resources indoors and out and more play – to help children assimilate their new ideas through practice, exploration, extension and assessment, but most of all by wallowing in fun, safe, rich, absorbing and captivating experiences.

As Clarke and Atkinson (p25) noted:

Children do not seem to learn maths in a linear way, learning one thing after another. It is a complex process. They often learn things that we don’t we have taught them and fail to learn things that we have taught them. Learning seems to resemble a jigsaw with the concept clicking into place as new experiences inform previous experiences.

The fear is that inexperienced early years policy advisors think number, pattern, measures, shape and space have to be teacher-taught. A world of worksheets, rote learning and whiteboard group activities has raised anxiety.

There are too many adults absolutely petrified by maths. Much of this has resulted from poor teaching. We don’t want to create a new generation of fearful mathematicians. We need problem-solvers to be ready to take on this changing world.

The proposed goals will be tested in 25 school Reception classes. The sector is therefore rightly asking if the pre-conceptual work done in the early years is to be ignored as a significant underpinning contribution to children becoming mathematicians.

June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit June’s blog at leyf.org.uk/junes-blog or connect on Twitter at @JuneOSullivan.

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