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How do children learn maths?

  • Young babies notice the size and amount of things around them. This is called ‘number sense’.
  • Young children learn about maths every day from the world around them. Hearing counting, nursery rhymes and ‘maths talk’ in daily life helps children to learn maths.
  • When children begin school, they continue to improve their understanding of number, shape and space. Adults can also improve their understanding throughout their lives.

What psychological factors help you learn maths?

Thinking and Understanding

  • The order we think about things, what we pay attention to and when we pay attention to it, all affect how we understand maths. This is known as ‘executive functioning’.
  • Understanding and estimating size, shape and space by looking at objects and pictures is an important maths skill. This is called ‘visual-spatial’ skills.
  • Working memory helps us to follow a sequence and hold information in mind.
  • Long-term memory helps us to remember facts and previous learning in maths.
Three blue arrows forming a loose circle, in between each arrow are the words having a go, confidence and fun! respectively to show how one drives the others onwards.

Emotions and Feelings

  • When a child or young person feels confident about maths it is easier for them to recall what they’ve learned.
  • Confidence allows children to ‘have a go’ at new learning, to enjoy it and to want to keep trying, even when they find things difficult.


  • Experiences of number including counting steps, going to the shops and using money, nursery rhymes all help to develop maths skills
  • Talking about maths and number at home helps children to practice and apply maths in their everyday lives.


  • Although strong maths skills can seem to run in families, everyone can improve their skills in maths over time and with practice.
  • Improving children’s language skills can help children with word problems, abstract thinking and explaining their own mathematical thinking.
  • Culture can influence the way that children learn and the assumptions people make about their learning. For example, different languages, different cultural expectations and gender could all affect how people approach maths.

Five fabulous facts about maths

  1. Target practice games can help children’s number comparison skills and estimation.
  2. Age appropriate action video games can improve older children’s attention to detail and their ability to filter out distracting information.
  3. A ‘jiffy’ is an actual unit of time (a hundredth of a second).
  4. Notches on animal bones show that people have been doing mathematics, or at least making computations, since around 30,000BC.Very young children can tell if a pile has 2 or 3 objects in, without counting them. This is called “subitising” [soo-bit-eye-zing]. You might hear your child’s teacher using this term.
  5. Very young children can tell if a pile has 2 or 3 objects in, without counting them. This is called “subitising” [soo-bit-eye-zing]. You might hear your child’s teacher using this term in Early Years classes.

Top tips for supporting children and young people with maths:

Keep the pressure low and make it fun!

  • Play board games, spot the difference, dot-to-dot, matching and puzzles. Target practice games and building towers are also great spatial awareness activities.
  • The National Numeracy Family Maths Toolkit is full of ideas and free activities to help families enjoy maths together. Families can access all the resources for free.

Include children in daily maths activities

  • Shopping, budgeting, weighing and measuring are all great for developing maths skills.

Use online games and TV programmes

  • BBC programmes such as number blocks are based on the most up-to-date understanding of maths learning. Watch alongside your child and talk about it together for best results. Help your child be epic at maths – CBeebies – BBC

Improve your own skills

  • This is a great time to extend your maths! Many schools and colleges offer free maths workshops for parents. Modern methods are often much easier to understand than the ones you might have learnt at school and will help you to understand the methods your children are using.