Skip to content
Show Menu

A playful, evidence-informed approach to maths education

By Julia Birchenough, Vicky Zhao and Elizabeth Byrne.

How PEDAL research can help a government committed to improving maths outcomes to think more creatively about how to achieve this goal.

Last year, the Prime Minister described his determination to improve maths education in the UK, arguing that our future economic growth depends on improving the numeracy of young people entering the workforce. The Labour Party too revealed a plan to “encourage stronger lifelong numeracy”.  So whoever wins July’s election in the UK, we can expect an ongoing focus on maths skills.

Maths is of undeniable importance for young people to function and thrive, both in employment and in everyday life. It is therefore important to ensure that every child gets the best chance to acquire mathematical knowledge and skills. 

When many of us think about maths learning, we might imagine sitting in a classroom learning times tables or algebra. However the evidence is clear that mathematical knowledge develops before children even start school, and indeed exposure to early mathematical knowledge before formal school can benefit children’s maths skills in later school years. Maths isn’t limited to formal classroom instruction either: During play, children naturally engage in mathematical activities, such as arranging objects to fit a space, counting, or comparing sizes and quantities. Within education settings, teachers and early years educators can harness the power of play to support children’s developing mathematical knowledge and skills. 

At PEDAL, we research how play – at home, in early education and in schools – can support children’s development and learning. Our research shows how playful exploration of maths in the early years lays strong foundations for later mathematical knowledge and skills, and therefore should be a key part of government strategies to improve maths attainment. 

The importance of early relationships and experiences at home

PEDAL research has shown how parents can support maths learning at home in the early years through using mathematical concepts like numbers, quantities and counting in play and everyday tasks. One study used both video and survey data to examine home learning at two age points, when children were aged two and five. At age two, parental support was assessed by looking at parental attentiveness and responsiveness towards their child, and how far they used language and mathematical concepts. Maths learning at age five was differentiated into formal and informal parental support. Formal support comprised explicit teaching of maths concepts through activities such as repeating number sequences or adding small numbers. In contrast, informal support involved more incidental learning through activities such as measuring ingredients or comparing prices when shopping. The study found that all these types of parental support for maths learning at age two and five benefitted children’s maths outcomes a year later.

Importantly the study also highlighted that maths outcomes at school age were better amongst children whose parents had engaged more sensitively, and provided more opportunity for conversation when children were toddlers. There is a rich body of knowledge that shows that good quality interactions between parents and toddlers, including conversation and positive and responsive interactions, support children’s language skills and wellbeing. Our study demonstrates that these interactions benefit their maths education too. 

Socioeconomic disadvantage leaves families with less time, resources and confidence to support their children in ways that improve learning and development. A Government committed to helping children to achieve their potential must therefore take action to support families from the start of their lives, and to reduce the barriers and stressors that make it harder for parents to provide the nurturing and stimulating care that their children need to develop and learn.

Opportunities in early education

When children enter early education, practitioners support their learning and development, including the development of early numeracy. At PEDAL, we aim to use research to empower these practitioners in their important work. Working with the Early Intervention Foundation, we identified the most common aspects of early years programmes that make a difference to children’s learning. The findings were put together in a free online resource, called the Early Years Library (EYL). The EYL presents bite-sized evidence-informed activities which any early education practitioner can use flexibly in their daily practice to encourage the development of a range of skills. These include activities to support numeracy. For example, a fun game to support children matching numbers to quantities would be to show children numbers and asking them to make as many jumps forward towards a finishing line.

We are currently running a project to help more practitioners use the early years library in early years settings, aiming to raise awareness of evidence-based practice and to enhance educators’ confidence in using their professional knowledge.

Playful maths learning in schools

Whilst playful learning is often a core component of early education, it can become less common as children move through the education system. To understand the impacts of different forms of learning, our researchers have compared traditional (instruction-based) teaching with more playful interactive approaches in schools.

In 2022, we undertook a meta-analysis to understand more about guided play – an approach that combines the key ingredients of children’s everyday play, such as fun, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation – with a learning goal and scaffolding from an adult (e.g., a parent or teacher). Importantly, guided play encourages children to take the lead during a playful learning activity, whilst the adult keeps them on track to help them reach the learning goal.   For example, if learning about shape properties, instead of an adult simply telling children about the properties or giving them instructions in a task, the adult can ask open-ended questions, provide prompts or suggestions, or set children small challenges during playful hands-on activities, to help them discover and remember the knowledge. In our research study, we searched published papers to identify those that have tested the effectiveness of guided play compared to more traditional (instruction-based) teaching. By combining the results of all of the studies we found that guided play was better than direct instruction for boosting children’s early maths skills and shape knowledge. 

Physical materials such as blocks, bricks, counters, and puzzles, are commonly used to support play-based learning in early maths education. PEDAL research has found that providing children with opportunities to touch, hold, and otherwise physically engage with objects during learning can support children’s understanding of new maths concepts and promote their active engagement in learning. This lays the foundation for the more complex and abstract concepts that they encounter later in their schooling. 

Both these studies suggest that policy makers should encourage the use of playful interactive pedagogy in maths education, for example, encouraging skillful conversations and the use of physical materials in maths education.

The wider benefits of playful learning

Play-based learning has benefits beyond the acquisition of maths knowledge and skills. It makes learning more fun, which promotes children’s wellbeing. Playful learning also gives children the opportunity to develop foundational skills such as self-regulation, motivation, creativity and collaboration. These wider skills and capacities are also essential to achieve the political parties’ goals to secure economic growth and maximising the potential of all young people.


The evidence is clear therefore, that whilst many might associate maths education with formal classroom learning, a government committed to improving maths outcomes can think more creatively about how to achieve this goal. Providing parents, early years educators and teachers with opportunity, support and resources to promote children’s early maths learning through quality interactions and play at home, and evidence-informed playful pedagogy in education, will promote  not only maths outcomes, but also the wider skills and capacities that our children, and our economy, need to thrive.

PEDAL papers referenced in this text:

  • Byrne, E. M., Jensen, H., Thomsen, B. S., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2023). Educational interventions involving physical manipulatives for improving children’s learning and development: A scoping review. Review of Education, 11(2), e3400.
  • Clarke, A., Baker, S., Ghiara, V., Burridge, H., Davie, P., Eberhart, J., Fischer, F., & Jackson, A. (2022). Early Years Library. Retrieved from October 16, 2023 from
  • Skene, K., O’Farrelly, C. M., Byrne, E. M., Kirby, N., Stevens, E. C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2022). Can guidance during play enhance children’s learning and development in educational contexts? A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Child Development, 93(4), 1162-1180.
  • Zhao, Y. V., & Gibson, J. L. (2023). Early home learning support and home mathematics environment as predictors of children’s mathematical skills between age 4 and 6: A longitudinal analysis using video observations and survey data. Child Development, 1-16.