IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Cognition and learning: maths, numeracy and numbers

Fun ideas to support children learning maths at home.

Colourful number blocks. Image: Digital Buggu via Pexels

Maths is a subject that often promotes high anxiety in both pupils and families. Ironically, some children will benefit from encountering mathematical ideas in a more relaxed setting and using ‘real life’ to acquire numeracy skills.

Fun, spontaneity and short bursts of activity are the key to success.


Some of the skills that can be helpfully reinforced are:

  • Same versus similar: ask children to identify things that are the same and those that are similar and verbalise the characteristics that are the same and different.
  • Matching: use cards or toys to play quick matching in pairs, then in groups of threes and fours
  • Sorting: different objects can be sorted in different ways (food, toy animals, toy cars etc). Allow children to be creative and sort according to their own criteria, ideally verbalising the criteria e.g. all blue cars; emergency vehicles; animals from the wild; healthier food. You can suggest your own criteria as an extension activity.
  • Comparing: Choosing objects that are both the same in one respect and different in another respect and verbalising these same/different characteristics,
  • Ordering: Objects can be ordered in terms of height, weight, colour graduation, time order etc.
  • Estimating: Older children can estimate the cost of shopping; younger children can estimate time, lengths and any numerical answer prior to completing a number sum or word problem. Ask children to explain their reasoning.
  • Part and Whole: concepts of part and whole can include ingredients in baking or lunch, parts of a flat, parts of a car, parts of the family and numbers broken into sections, such as 30 broken into equal parts (10/10/10 or 15/15) or unequal parts (12/7/11). You could use odd/even dice to decide when to divide a number into equal or unequal parts.
  • Counting on or back: You can use a bead string (or necklace) or number line to practice counting on from a chosen number, or counting back. This task can be extended by counting on and back in twos, threes, fives or tens. The aim is to increase fluency and confidence in conceptualising sequential numbers.

Ideas for specific groups

Maths-based ideas for families at home, from small to early teens

by Dr Jenefer Golding (IOE)

  • Young children learn about number, number language, and matching, by e.g. setting the table and being talked through that (one spoon each: one for mummy, one for Sam, ….and then count them), or sorting out the dry washing – and those activities can also include words around size and position.
  • Children benefit from using informal measures of height, weight, volume, distance (taller than me, weighs about the same as a bag of sugar, a cup full of cereal, from here to the clock tower…) in their early years, and then moving to more standard units. Cooking, including following a recipe, is a great way to develop their sense of key measures, as well as of sequencing and cooking time. Gardening, similarly, includes many mathematical ideas around sequencing, weight, volume, distance, number, pattern, time…… : there is enormous benefit in just talking with children about the thinking that’s going on as you share jobs. 
  • ‘I spy’ and other informal games can build measures and position language: ‘I spy with my little eye, something that’s in front of the table and is about twice as high as the lego box...’ (or, for older children, 60 cm high)
  • On sunny days, shadows are fun. How does the direction and length of your shadow change through the day? (Why?) How could you record that?
    For younger children, use informal measures: for example, how many shoes long?
    For slightly older children, it’s a great opportunity to build up understanding of what centimetres and metres look like…
  • Informally recorded ‘plans for the day’ help develop security, sequencing and sense of time, and can be expanded with the day/date, and illustrated with the weather.
  • Make patterns with stones or leaves in the garden. 
  • With your child, watch the cars passing the window for 5 minutes each day at the same time. Decide how to record what you see. What is the same, and what is different, each day? 
  • Board and card games support number language, strategic thinking and social skills. 
  • Kitchen, or free digital, timers, can build a sense of time (and fun, and urgency!): Stopwatch online has a good selection.
  • Construction toys and jigsaw puzzles develop sequencing, spatial problem solving, strategic thinking and resilience, especially if there’s also someone to talk to.
  • ‘Shape pictures’ can develop shape language and imagination: can you draw a picture that uses just 3 small triangles, 2 medium squares, a big and a small circle, and some wiggles? 
  • Involve children in discussions about financial decisions, budgeting, online shopping…. 
  • If your child’s school wants them to do ‘formal’ maths while they’re at home, parents can support by asking the child to explain how they normally work, looking back at previous work, and encouraging them to make sense of what they’re being asked to do. ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’ is a good approach if you’re both stuck!
  • Age ranges given on toys, games and puzzles are rough guides only: your child will know if they find an activity absorbing, and might well be able to suggest variations.

Links to support these ideas

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Children with autism or attentional and motivational difficulties

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Children with dyslexia and maths difficulties

An interesting article on teaching maths to students with dyslexia:

More ideas on JKP blog:

Multi-sensory resources appealing to children with a range of abilities and interests:

  • Times Tables Rock Stars website - now offering their engaging app for free.
  • White Rose Maths website - packs to support learning during school closures. Support includes video tutorials and free access to their premium content.
  • Mr Barton Maths website - another free resource with a light sense of humour. Includes everything from diagnostic questions to CPD to SATS and GCSE preparation and revision.

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