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Pretend play and Children’s Mathematical Graphics

We learn language by using language (Tomasello, 2003). 

The more often children communicate their thinking through graphicacy, the more readily they come to understand the abstract written language of mathematics. Language is socially learned. Children spontaneously communicate their mathematical thinking in their free pretend play, through their Mathematical Graphics and speech.


The focal point of my PhD

   - was the emergence and development of 3 and 4-year-olds' mathematical inscriptions (i.e., Children's Mathematical Graphics) and their development in the children's spontaneous and free pretend play (Worthington, 2021). My research is underpinned by Vygotskian socio-cultural and social semiotic theory. Four distinct chapters provided the main section:

  • Pretend play and the cultural foundations of mathematics; 
  • Children's social literacies: Meaning making and the emergence graphical signs and texts in pretence;

  • The development of mathematical abstraction in the nursery; 
  • Intertextuality and the advance of mathematisation in young

         children's inscriptions.


The culture of the early childhood setting is the most significant contribution that teachers can make to support young children’s mathematical understandings.


The results of this research -

      "... substantiate its socio-cultural hypothesis of the genesis of mathematical thinking as a social-semiotic process, describing the emergence and evolution of children's mathematical thinking, stimulated by communication with more knowledgeable others, rather than Piaget's view of cognitive structures and their interaction in the environment. It shows that within rich pretend play, young children's development of mathematical sign use can be much more thorough and far-reaching, than has been found in previous studies" (Worthington, Dobber & van Oers, emphasis added, 2023).



    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.


    Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Harvard University Press.


van Oers, B. (2024). The development of mathematical thinking in young children’s play: The role of communicative tools. In: Palmér, H., Björklund, C., Reikerås, E., Elofsson, J. (eds) Teaching Mathematics as to be Meaningful – Foregrounding Play and Children’s Perspectives. Springer, Cham.


     Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University.


     Worthington, M., Dobber, M., & van Oers, B. (2023). Intertextuality and the advance of mathematisation in young children’s inscriptions. Research Papers in Education.


    Worthington, M. (2021). The emergence and development of young children’s personal mathematical inscriptions: The evolution of graphical signs explored through children’s spontaneous pretend play. [Doctoral Dissertation]. Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. 


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


    Worthington, M. (2018). Funds of knowledge: Children’s cultural ways of knowing mathematics. In V. Kinnear, M-Y Lai & T. Muir (Eds.), Forging connections in early mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 239-258). Springer.