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Play and children’s mathematics

Freedom to play: children leading their learning

    Having the freedom to play and investigate their learning environments, children are able to explore

their 'everyday concepts' (Vygotsky, 1986)Fleer & Ridgway, (2007, p. 25) suggest that "at the everyday level, concepts are learned as a result of interacting directly with the world – developing intuitive understandings of how to do things".  Everyday and scientific concepts are directly related to each other, teachers gradually introducing scientific (or academic) concepts as the children grow.

     The examples on our website and in our publications, can help practitioners ‘see’ the mathematics in children’s play, and are underpinned by the rich legacy of research into young children’s mathematical development, play and learning.


Pretend play and Children's Mathematical Graphics


See also:

Fleer, M., & Ridgway, A. (2007). Mapping the relations between everyday concepts within playful learning experiments. In  I. Verinkina, P. Kell, & G Vogl, (Eds.), Learning and Sociocultural Theory: Exploring Modern Vygotskian Perspectives International Workshop 2007 (vol 1, pp. 24-45). Researcher online: University of Wollongong.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and Language. MIT Press.


Worthington, M., & Van Oers, B. (2016). Pretend play and the cultural foundations of mathematics. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 24(1). 51-66. 


Extending children's mathematical learning

      Observing children’s play helps practitioners to value the children's growing mathematical understanding and reveal ways to support this development. Children’s interests and cultural knowledge (or 'funds of knowledge', Moll et al., 1992), are powerful catalysts for mathematical enquiry and will provide a strong starting point to support and extend their mathematical thinking.  

     Opportunities for problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking and reflection are vital if children are to make the most of their emergent understandings of mathematics, and how they might communicate their mathematical thinking.

     Sensitive adults who value children’s ideas and support children’s play and mathematical explorations through collaborative dialogue help to ‘scaffold’ children’s thinking. Practitioners can help children go beyond what they already understand and can do. Thinking, making meanings and understanding are significant aspects of mathematics.

     Engaging in discussion with children means that the adult is genuinely interested in learning from
the children about their ideas. Using open questions encourages children to talk about their thinking. This will allow ideas to be co-constructed and shared, and meanings to be negotiated and understood.


Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzales, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Carruthers, E. (2017). Open mathematics, open minds: Play and children's thinking. Community Playthings.


DCSF. (2009). Children's mathematical thinking: PSRN essential knowledge for early years practitioners. London: DCSF. [Elizabeth and Maulfry were commissioned by the DCSF to write this, with the  exception of the last few pages].