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Before we get to counting...

In my experience, one of the most significant mistakes we can make when teaching ‘mathematical’ concepts to our youngest children is to push forward with counting before a child is ready. This can be even more profound if a child has additional support needs, and it can be magnified further if the process is formalised and children are expected to evidence their knowledge on paper.  Although ‘Mathematical Development’ is an appropriate term for early thinking and problem-solving skills, I prefer to label this area ‘Cognition’.  I think it helps practitioners working with our youngest children or those with additional support needs to consider more than just counting in their setting.  Mistakes aren’t exclusive to number – on one standout visit to a nursery I was surprised to see that a pre-verbal three year old, who was yet to show any interest in other adults or children in his setting, was sat at a ‘workstation’ completing an inset puzzle hand over hand. To be fair to the setting, they were just following the advice of an advisor.


In the first year of a child’s life, or for a child with significant additional support needs, it is my belief that treasure baskets are a great place to start.  These baskets are collections of (preferably) natural materials that aim to fully engage a child’s senses.  Babies benefit hugely from handling, sucking, shaking and banging these objects – which in turn helps them to learn about weight, size, shape, texture, sound and smell.  The key to a successful treasure basket is to stimulate the child’s curiosity – here’s some examples of items that you might want to include (it’s important that you consider your actual basket carefully as well – natural, sturdy, flat bottomed):

·         Pine cones

·         Spoons

·         Small rolling pins

·         Wooden egg cups

·         Natural loofahs

·         Curtain rings

·         Pastry brushes

·         Cotton reels


As with any area of teaching and learning, it’s very important to reflect on what is working well with the basket and which items are particularly interesting to your child.  Refresh the basket regularly and adapt it to best suit the needs of your little one.  It should be easy enough to find appropriate items for your baskets when you’re out and about (forest and beach walks can be ideal).  Shops that sell items you might use in the kitchen or even hardware shops can be great too.  If you prefer, there are companies who put together baskets for you – one company I’ve used is Sensory Treasures (https://sensorytreasures.co.uk/) – they asked about the type of items I was looking for and made me up a personalised basket for my baby – which she loved. 




If you’re considering using treasure baskets with children with physical support needs you will need to think about access.  It might be hard for the child to lift their hands over the rim of the basket and into it to explore – it could be that you look for baskets that aren’t so deep, or even have one edge lower than the others.


Heuristic play is a concept that links closely with treasure baskets and was a term coined by child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid, in the 1980's.  It describes the activity of babies and children as they play with and explore the properties of 'objects' from the real world.  It is brilliant for developing creativity and expression but also develops ‘thinking’ skills that are crucial in early maths.  As an added bonus, it helps in developing those all-important fine motor skills. 

It is likely that some of the items you would use in a treasure basket might also feature in a set of heuristic play objects.  Try to have increased quantities of individual objects – so several corks, or a set of curtain rings.  With heuristic play it is also useful to add some containers and larger objects to increase the creative possibilities.  These might include:

·         Cardboard tubes

·         Mug trees

·         Metal bowls

·         Muffin tins


These larger objects give children the opportunity to start considering a very important concept – ‘One to One Correspondence’.  This concept can often be the bit that’s missing if your child is struggling to grasp counting later on.  It is the ability to match one object to one other object or person. A good indication that a child has understanding of one to one correspondence further down the line is that they touch each item only once when counting them (matching each item with a numeral).  There are a variety of play opportunities that provide children with a chance to practice this.  Egg boxes or muffin trays are perfect – putting one item in each of the sections.  Mug trees are also great – hanging one curtain ring on each branch, or not – whatever takes your child’s fancy!




There are lots of other engaging opportunities to think about one to one correspondence in day to day life.  The majority of young children love to ‘help’ with jobs, and a great one for supporting early maths concepts is setting the table.

1.      Each chair needs one table mat in front of it

2.      Each mat needs one fork on it

3.      Each fork needs one knife with it

4.      Each mat needs one glass on it

5.      Each glass needs one (biodegradable!) straw in it…….


Baking is also a brilliant opportunity for considering one to one correspondence – each space in the muffin tin needs a cake holder.  Each cake holder needs a dollop of mixture.  Once the cakes are out of the oven – each cake needs a cherry on top.


Activities like these are good for establishing an understanding of something that’s vitally important – the meaning of one.  If a child doesn’t understand what one means then there is little point in even considering trying to teach what two, three, four and five are all about.  A useful way to address this is to provide opportunities for children to make choices between ‘one’ and ‘lots’.  Rightly or wrongly this type of thing works particularly well at snack time! It might be raisins, or segments of an orange, or slices of apple.  I’ll leave it to you to consider more motivating choices if your child isn’t a fruit lover!  There are obviously also lots of opportunities during play sessions – loose parts play is perfect – as always, I’d advise considering as natural an approach as possible.  Shells, pebbles, conkers, acorns, pine cones, corks…. the list is endless.  Selections of containers that look and sound different will be helpful – metallic pans/colanders are ideal. 


I’ll finish by sounding a word of warning: don’t get too hung up on ‘testing’ your child’s understanding of these early mathematical concepts - let them play!  Your use of developmentally appropriate mathematical language and the way that you play and explore yourself will be just what’s needed.  They will show you that they understand when they are ready – and then you’ll know it’s time for the next step.

Stephen Kilgour
Stephen Kilgour worked at Cherry Garden School, an outstanding specialist school in London, for 11 years, 7 of those as Deputy Head Teacher and Early Years Lead. He is now a SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher at Tapestry. He lives in Newcastle with his wife and two young children.

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