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Play by numbers

At Fundamentally Children we believe in the value of play, because children learn best when they are enjoying themselves, and can become actively engaged in the task.

One of the key methods children use to learn is trial and error; therefore, using a hands-on approach, and allowing them to experiment, is a good way for children to develop their mathematical thinking skills.

Here we’ve suggested just a few examples of the toys and activities you can provide to encourage development in some of the areas of numeracy, for early years and Key Stage 1.

Ages 1-5

Numbers and Counting

The ‘My World - My 123 Under the Sea’ puzzle (ages 3-4) is a great way to help children practice numbers. Each puzzle piece shows the number as a digit, written, and as a quantity pictured using various sea creatures; this helps children learn to associate the different representations of numbers.

Putting jigsaw puzzles together also helps to develop logical thinking and pattern recognition, as children must match the correct pieces together.

Adding and subtracting

At this age, children are learning the concept of giving and taking away from quantities, and using objects for demonstrating can help with this.

For example, using a toy farm – put a few horses in a stable and ask the child how many there are, then add or remove one, and ask again. You can get children to try this themselves as well, and practice counting in a similar way, too.


The ‘Tiggly Shapes’ app for tablets (ages 18 months – 4 years) is great for helping children become familiar with basic shapes.

They are able to decorate a scene by dragging the shapes onto it, which then turn into objects (for example, a circle can become berries). The lovely thing about this app is that there are also plastic shapes available, which children can use to interact with the tablet, by pressing them on the screen. There is a counting version of this app available too.

Ages 5-9

Numbers and counting

‘Zingo! Number Bingo! 123’ (ages 4-8) is a fun bingo game that helps children practice the different representations of numbers. To play, children match the numbers called (shown as a digit on individual tiles) to their card (a grid with the number written, and as a quantity), so they need to know which digits go with which written numbers or quantities. It also promotes playing as a group.

‘Montessori 1st Operations’ (ages 4-8) is a fantastic app for tablets to teach addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It uses blocks as a visual aid, and has activities to encourage children to practice their operations.

‘Montessori Math: Add and Subtract Large Numbers’ (ages 6-8) is another good app from this developer that uses partitioning to break down larger numbers (splitting them into hundreds, tens and units) for adding and subtracting. This app also uses blocks and bead frames as a visual guide for learning that children can use to calculate their answers.


The ‘Geometry’ app for tablets by Montessori (ages 5-10) can help children learn more about the properties of shapes. This covers 23 shapes, showing them as 2D images, and also as 3D images that can be rotated. There are facts about the shapes, and activities that can encourage children to practice their knowledge.


Children love ‘playing shops’, and this is a great way to get them practicing how to use money.

To encourage this, set up an area with a till, some play money and merchandise (there are pretend products available, or you can always use various toys) – you can join in the role-play to guide learning, but this is also a good opportunity to support group play and sharing.

Children can also apply their adding and subtracting skills, to calculate how much to pay for their shopping or change to give.


Encourage children to practice measuring by helping them to cook using a recipe, allowing them to measure the various ingredients and learn about weight and volume.

This also helps them to become familiar with connecting numbers and measurements, and what these measurements mean. You might get some nice cakes out of it too!

Learning shouldn’t be boring – children thoroughly enjoy playing, and can gain so much useful experience from doing so. Providing the right toys and activities to develop their skills is a great way to point them in the right direction.

At Fundamentally Children we promote giving children a balanced play diet; this is a practical approach to children’s development, which places the focus on getting the right balance between all aspects of play. It’s a good idea to provide children with toys and activities that can develop different skills, as well as vary in their educational and fun value.

We would love to hear your opinions too - have you tried any of these toys or activities? Are there any you would add to this list?

Amanda has over 20 years experience working with children and families. Widely considered as THE go to expert on play, toys and child development, Amanda combines her theoretical knowledge with a refreshingly pragmatic approach to family life. With two children herself, she understands the pressures facing families today and knows that things rarely go according to plan with young children.

Amanda is regularly in the media, and continues to take an active role in research, presenting a paper at the International Toy Research Association’s World Congress in Portugal in July 2014. She is often involved in government policy around children’s issues, recently contributing to the Bailey Report and the Childhood Inquiry. 

Amanda heads up Fundamentally Children,  providers of the popular parenting advice site, home of the Good Toy Guide and Good App Guide so is surrounded by play on a daily basis as she observes children playing with the latest toys and apps.

graham woodward
Hi Amanda,
I am trying to get in touch with you regarding some EYFS games I have invented and trying to promote to child minders and nannies etc. I would appreciate any help and/or advice you could give me, or if you would be interested in 'stocking' them. Please look at my website to find out about me and see the other games I have created to prove I am serious also our shopping channel
Kind Regards
20/06/2017 12:59:45

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