Maths mastery: is it right for Early Years?

Maths mastery: is it right for Early Years?

With many schools already seeing the benefits of a mastery approach to mathematics in Key Stages 1 and 2, thoughts are now starting to turn to Early Years. So what exactly is mastery, and would it be appropriate for an Early Years setting?  ‘Mastery’ most...


With many schools already seeing the benefits of a mastery approach to mathematics in Key Stages 1 and 2, thoughts are now starting to turn to Early Years. So what exactly is mastery, and would it be appropriate for an Early Years setting? 

‘Mastery’ most commonly refers to the teaching approach championed by the UK’s National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) and Maths Hubs, which has at its heart the idea that all children can, and should, achieve success in maths. A mastery approach keeps the whole class learning and moving on together, by supporting children who are struggling to keep up with the class and encouraging those who are ready to explore concepts more deeply, rather than moving on to a different topic. The aim is to equip all children with a deep, secure and adaptable understanding of mathematical concepts. So, for example, they do not simply memorise the fact that 2 + 3 = 5, but they really understand how and why that is the case, laying the foundations for being able to apply this understanding to more complex maths later on.

In practice, a mastery approach can be an ideal fit for Early Years classrooms, when children are keen to explore and understand the world around them. The pilot Early Learning Goals, released in 2018 for trialling in a small number of schools, focus on covering a smaller amount of content but developing a deeper understanding of it, indicating that mastery is likely to become the go-to approach for Reception very soon. So how does it work in practice? Below are some tips for how you can get started with mastery in your Early Years setting.

Building firm foundations

When it comes to maths teaching in the Early Years, it’s important that children begin to develop a sense of the underlying concepts and structures of maths. Some children may come to school already fluently counting to ten and beyond – but do they really, deeply understand what these numbers mean? Challenge them to show a variety of representations of each number, using real-life objects, maths equipment, drawings, sound and movement. Ask them to pick five pencils from a pot of ten, to recognise numbers out of sequence, and to find all the pairs of numbers that make up five or ten. A wide variety of activities help children develop a deep understanding of the composition of numbers and a sense of what happens when they manipulate the numbers, an important core skill that they need to master in order to be successful in maths later on.

Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract

The Concrete – Pictorial – Abstract (CPA) approach can support teaching for mastery. In the CPA approach, children explore new maths concepts in a concrete way using real-life situations and objects and use mathematical representations, such as counters or a ten frame, in order to help them make sense of abstract numbers and symbols. 

Many practitioners find that using concrete resources in maths comes naturally in EYFS – and that’s great! Being able to touch, feel and manipulate the maths is an ideal way to help children develop an understanding of the underlying concepts. The next step is to move children from that solid starting point to a pictorial approach. Teaching children how to represent objects is a good starting point – it’s not practical to get 3 sheep and 2 cows into the room to sort them, so what could the children use instead to help them? Moving from a representation with a clear link (such as toy versions of the animals) to representation with something less obviously linked (such as counters and a part-whole model) ensures children develop an understanding of representation, building a firm foundation for later success in maths. 

Finally, in order to really achieve mastery, children should begin to develop abstract mathematical thinking. But abstract maths doesn’t have to mean formal written maths in the Early Years! Try using sound and movement – how many claps can you hear? Can you hop 5 times? Activities like these ensure children are not relying solely on visual cues, helping them take steps towards working in the abstract.

Demystify mathematical language

When introducing new mathematical concepts, it’s best to use correct mathematical language from the start so that it becomes normal and not ‘scary’. Mathematical concepts and their associated language should be embedded into everyday classroom life to help children to understand how the concepts apply in a variety of real-life situations. For example, try asking children to line up in twos or threes, to sort pens and pencils into different pots as part of tidying up and to talk about the properties of everyday objects. Make sure you are regularly using the mathematical language you have introduced and encourage children to use it too. 

Achieving mastery through play

Setting up mathematical activities for children to explore independently is a great way to reinforce concepts during freeflow time. You could create displays of seasonal objects for children to count, sort and explore. You could set some mathematical rules, such as allowing only 3 children to play with sand at a time (leading to opportunities for discussion such as, how many children are there now? Is there room for one more? Are there enough spades for each child?). You could suggest activities such as setting the table for 4 teddy bears in the home corner. Every time maths is built into an everyday activity, it helps embed and reinforce understanding of the concept.   

Develop a growth mindset 

A key way to help children become ready for Key Stage 1 is to embed a growth mindset right from the start. Made a mistake? No worries! Learn from it, and have another go. Something you tried hasn’t worked? What could you try instead? Growth mindset attitudes to learning will help children become confident, curious and resilient learners, not just in maths but across the whole curriculum, setting them up for future success. 


About the author

Katie Hiatt is a Publisher at Pearson and has led the development of Power Maths Reception.

Power Maths Reception combines a mastery teaching approach with Early Years best practice and a growth mindset approach to help children develop a deep understanding and enjoyment of maths. 

Find out more at

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