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One, two, three: Get your little one ready for maths!

Written by Nicky Sanford for the Early Years Alliance. Nicky worked as an early years teacher for 15 years and currently works in a village pre-school. 


Have you noticed that if your little one throws two toys from their highchair and you only retrieve one they will ‘look’ for the other?

This is early awareness of quantities.

It’s never too early to share numbers with your child — even children who are not yet old enough to express their knowledge can have an understanding of what number comes next and what order numbers are said in (ordinality).

For example singing number songs such as ‘Once I caught a fish alive’, counting objects or using numbers in anticipation games (One.. two… three… splash!!) are great ways of incorporating numbers into their play.


Developing skills at 2 – what to expect


Between the ages of 2 and 3, children will begin to understand what a number is, and that it represents a quantity. They can begin to say some numbers in order and use random numbers within their play. They may be able to recite the numbers one to ten, and sometimes beyond.

How to support your two year old:

  • Sing lots of songs with numbers!  “5 little speckled frogs”, “5 little ducks went swimming one day”, “One, two, buckle my shoe”.
  • Count steps, strides, slabs, claps, jumps, butterflies, cars, sticks, stones, apples, doors, windows, puddles — in fact anything and everything you see throughout the day!
  • Point out when you can see two, three or even four things that are the same.
  • Play board games that use a die, spinner and counters. Let your child hear you counting and saying the numbers in the correct order – this is how they will learn for themselves.

Developing skills at 3 – what to expect


Once children have a good knowledge of the number order, they may start to count more accurately saying one number name for each object.  This isn’t as easy as we might think and there are lots of skills to be gained!

Knowing the order of numbers (ie. 1,2,3,4,5)

Knowing to stop counting when there are no more objects!

Knowing and remembering that each object has to be counted once and only once, with none being missed out.

Knowing that each object should receive it’s own number

It sometimes takes a while to master all of these skills!

Children of this age will often start to show an interest in numerals in the environment around them – usually starting with their age. They may link themselves to every opportunity that the number 3 is spoken for example “I’m 3!”

How to support your three year old:

  • Allow your child to help with shopping, for example by holding the bag as you put in three apples or count out six potatoes.
  • Use wooden blocks or threading beads to count how many or use a die to decide how many more to add!

Developing skills at 4 – what to expect


As your child reaches 4 years and beyond, their maths skills begin to become more secure and they may be ready to count on, compare groups and have a more secure understanding of numbers and quantities.  They may be able to count more accurately and share out objects between two or three different people. Their knowledge of number order may allow them to count forwards (1,2,3) as well as backwards (3,2,1) which is a great step towards addition and subtraction, after all you need to know the order of the numbers if you want to add on two or take three away!

How to support your four year old:

  • Now may be the time that your little one begins to really enjoy board games, dice games and numbers. Talk about numbers as you play, let them see you use numbers in your everyday life.
  • Read out phone numbers, show them addresses of letters that you’re posting. Talk about the prices of favourite items at the shops.
  • Allow your child to help with laying the table, have you got enough forks?
  • Count how many red cars pass you before the bus arrives.
  • Use simple sums when out shopping, for example “I have three apples and I need two more, how many will that be now?”



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