Last reviewed 7 October 2021

The revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory guidance came into force in September 2021. Changes to the early years educational programmes include a fundamental shift towards children understanding number and numeracy, with less emphasis on shape, space and measure, writes Rebecca Fisk.

What does the EYFS say about mathematics?

In 2017, the EYFS said that mathematics involves providing children with opportunities to develop and improve their skills in counting, understanding and using numbers, calculating simple addition and subtraction problems, and to describe shapes, spaces and measure. However, the 2021 EYFS goes into more detail and shifts the focus to number and numerical understanding. In 2021, the EYFS now has the mathematics educational programme as follows:

“Developing a strong grounding in number is essential so that all children develop the necessary building blocks to excel mathematically. Children should be able to count confidently, develop a deep understanding of the numbers to 10, the relationships between them and the patterns within those numbers. By providing frequent and varied opportunities to build and apply this understanding — such as using manipulatives, including small pebbles and tens frames for organising counting — children will develop a secure base of knowledge and vocabulary from which mastery of mathematics is built. In addition, it is important that the curriculum includes rich opportunities for children to develop their spatial reasoning skills across all areas of mathematics including shape, space and measures. It is important that children develop positive attitudes and interests in mathematics, look for patterns and relationships, spot connections, ‘have a go’, talk to adults and peers about what they notice and not be afraid to make mistakes”.

The emphasis has shifted from a balance of numeracy and shape, space and measure to much more focus on children’s numeracy skills, with an implied link to the mastery curriculum in Key Stage 1.

Early Learning Goals for mathematics assessment at the end of the EYFS

Children will be assessed at the end of the EYFS (Reception Year in school) on three mathematical Early Learning Goals: number, numerical patterns and mathematics. Children at the expected level of development will reach the following levels within each category:


“Have a deep understanding of number to 10, including the composition of each number;- Subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5; - Automatically recall (without reference to rhymes, counting or other aids) number bonds up to 5 (including subtraction facts) and some number bonds to 10, including double facts.”

Numerical Patterns

“Verbally count beyond 20, recognising the pattern of the counting system; - Compare quantities up to 10 in different contexts, recognising when one quantity is greater than, less than or the same as the other quantity; - Explore and represent patterns within numbers up to 10, including evens and odds, double facts and how quantities can be distributed equally.”


“In addition, it is important that the curriculum includes rich opportunities for children to develop their spatial reasoning skills across all areas of mathematics including shape, space and measures. It is important that children develop positive attitudes and interests in mathematics, look for patterns and relationships, spot connections, ‘have a go’, talk to adults and peers about what they notice and not be afraid to make mistakes.”

What does this mean in practice?

“Opportunities for mathematical learning can happen anywhere and should be practical wherever possible” (Early Childhood Mathematics Group). Not only will children need lots of time to explore and repeat in play, but also will require sensitive interaction from adults who help children articulate their thinking through talk and demonstration. Practitioners that share a playful approach to mathematics with children will support them to learn that mathematical discovery is fun and engaging.

High quality observations of how children are learning through the characteristics of effective learning are vital to support children from their starting points to develop their next steps of developmental progress. Children should be encouraged to explore mathematics in a practical way to secure understanding and application of that understanding to play opportunities, problem solving at their own level. Trying things out and exploring will support the development of the complex concepts involved in mathematics through trial and error. Mathematics involves creativity and critical thinking such as when children try to solve a problem like how far their toy car will travel down a ramp. Practical concrete resources and play opportunities will provide a basis for children being able to think in a more abstract and conceptual way in time. Di Chilvers writes that the concrete learning is in the here and now and abstract learning is more internalised and embedded (Nursery World July 2021).

Key to teaching children a wide range of mathematical concepts, including numbers, will be teaching them the vocabulary of mathematics. For example, this includes number names, (one, two, three, etc) ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc) and manipulation of numbers such as addition and subtraction (add, take away, more, less, etc).

The language of shape, space and measure remains vital if children are to apply their numerical knowledge. For example, teaching words such as ‘wide and narrow’, ‘tall and short’, ‘high and low’, ‘heavy and light’ all have application in real life such as if something fits in a space or whether someone can lift an item up. For example, someone this tall can go on a particular fairground ride but under this height is too short.

Numbers and shape, space and measure are inextricably linked when applied to real world problems, so by placing more emphasis on number alone in the new mathematics Early Learning Goals, there is a danger that children will miss out on wider mathematical learning. Practitioners have a responsibility to children not to over-narrow their teaching just to number and numeracy, whilst ensuring children do become confident with number patterns and numbers.

Staff confidence

Mathematics is an area where many early years practitioners may not feel confident in their own knowledge. For example, do they understand the terms in the EYFS educational programme ‘cardinal number value, subitising, numeral, composition of number’ and so on. It is vital to explore this with your staff. Why not spend some time at each staff meeting taking one aspect of the mathematics educational programme terminology and look at what that means in the practice? Share some demonstrations of practical activities which can support understanding. You can ask a member of staff to become the mathematics champion in the setting, researching pedagogy and sharing top tips for staff. This can translate well into support for parents in the home learning environment where they too can have a big impact on a child’s maths confidence.

Resources for staff

Real-life authentic resources will make learning mathematics exciting and applicable to daily life. This gives children a sense of real purpose. For example, if they are measuring water in the water tray, some real measuring jugs and measuring spoons can be used as well as other vessels. Use collections of objects for children to sort, count and categorise, such as natural objects like pine cones, pebbles and shells. Mathematics resources do not have to be expensive and plastic! There are lots of ideas about resources and mathematical development that are available.

  • Development Matters non-statutory guidance is designed to support practitioners with how to put the educational programmes into practice for children at different ages and stages of development.

  • Birth to Five Matters non-statutory guidance outlines ranges of child development and ideas for how practitioners can use their positive relationships with children and their environment to enable children’s learning and development. For example, this document has broken down the mathematical development areas into number, spatial awareness, shape, pattern, and measures.

  • The Early Childhood Maths Group produce factsheets to support mathematics at different ages.

  • NRICH has an early years section on their website which shares useful documents, activities and articles to support early years mathematical development. Why not choose an article to share at a staff meeting for discussion?


“As a childcare professional you can make a real difference to ensure every child has a chance to become a confident learner and user of mathematics.” (PACEY).

Start by encouraging staff to share their own understanding of the EYFS mathematics educational programme. This will develop their skills and knowledge and they too can gain confidence to demonstrate positive relationships and interactions with the children about mathematics. An enabling environment for the children will create a great mathematical start, too. Find the magic in mathematics to enable children to develop that secure base of knowledge and vocabulary required from which “mastery of mathematics” is built. (EYFS 2021)

Further information