Young Children Are Powerful Mathematicians

Toddler Math Timeby Bob Perry, Charles Sturt University      Have you ever thought about the mathematics that there is in your life? What about the mathematics that there is in the lives of your children? Mathematics is all around us and we ‘do’ mathematics every hour of every day.


Recently my 6-year-old grandson sent me an e-mail to tell me that a two dimensional shape with an infinite number of sides was called an apeiragon. While this obscure fact was not important to the livelihood of either my grandson or me, it did lead to an ongoing discussion about shapes and large numbers which was way beyond what he was learning at school. Young children are often capable of much more than we ask of them and they are willing to investigate all sorts of things because of the inherent challenges.


In a recently published book, colleagues Robert Hunting (La Trobe University) and Judy Mousley (Deakin University), and I have looked at many aspects of how young children learn mathematics and how adults can help them.  Mostly, we look at ways in which mathematics learning can be fun and rewarding for the children and for the adults involved. (Editor's note: WIN a copy of this book...see details below.)


We have based the book on our many years of research and experience into how young children learn mathematics and especially on a study that asked early childhood educators to tell us about what mathematics they expected young children to do and how they might do it. It is generally agreed that all children are capable of being powerful mathematicians. Most of this mathematics will arise from play in everyday situations.


For example, cooking is a great activity to bring out lots of measuring ideas – mass, capacity, temperature, time – while playing in sand on the beach or in the park or with play dough can encourage children to explore shapes and their properties. Water play is great fun and will almost always involve pouring water from one container to another, allowing the children to make comparisons about the capacities of various containers. When reading a picture book, children will notice mathematical ideas. Not all need to be pursued but many can be without spoiling the joy of the story.


There are many other examples of mathematical concepts that young children can develop such as arranging, sorting, comparing quantities, counting, filling and emptying, matching, pattering, splitting and sharing. You might like to think of activities in which your young children are involved that provide opportunities for the learning of these concepts.


The role of the adult is very important in young children’s mathematical development. It is not enough just to make sure that the children have materials for play, although they will need some materials like blocks, and things to count such as stones or buttons. When children play with materials, adults need to become involved and have the task of noticing the mathematics that might grow from the play activity and pointing it out to the child in ways that help continue the exploration of the mathematical ideas.


Adults need to be careful that they take their leads from the children and support them as they develop their own thinking about the mathematics they are experiencing. Young children do not need to talk about or write about mathematics in the same ways that adults or older children do. However, they do need to explore and talk about their mathematics in ways that have meaning for them.


Adults can stimulate the investigation and the discussion of mathematical ideas through asking open-ended questions – questions that have more than one possible answer or even no answer at all. For example, when a child is making something out of play dough it is probably better for an adult to ask the child to tell them about the thing they are making than try to guess what it is and ask about that specifically. I once asked a 4-year-old boy to tell me what he was doing with the ball he was waving above his head. He quickly turned away, saying “It isn’t a ball, it is a rocket ship and it is flying to Mars”. If only I had asked him to tell me what he was doing, we may have ended up in a situation where we could have talked about large distances, time, and a lot more.


Young Children Learning Mathematics is designed to link with the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia to help educators and family members assist young children learn mathematics in fun and rewarding ways. It is based on beliefs that young children should be challenged and supported through play and investigation and that adults, both educators and family members, can do this. We want children to learn mathematics and feel good about doing so. We want them to come to school knowing some mathematics but, more importantly, wanting to know more.

About the author:

Bob Perry is Professor of Education at Charles Sturt University. His research interests include powerful mathematics ideas in preschool and the first years of school, educational transitions and preschool education in remote Indigenous communities.



Young Children Learning MathematicsHunting, R., Mousley, J., & Perry, B. (2012). Young children learning mathematics: A guide for educators and families. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.


WIN a copy of this book! (Ends May 11, 2012)

Enter the 'Young Maths' Competition, for your chance to WIN a copy of Young Children Learning Mathematics. A guide for educators and families, this book answers frequently asked questions about early childhood mathematics, and provides simple, easy-to-follow guidelines for parents with young children up to the age of five. Click here.



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