Space Matters: the importance of creativity and critical thinking in early maths.

The Early Learning Goals in EYFS continue to be under consultation and apparently with some delay of submission to Ministers.

There is so much talk about ‘number’ since Bold Beginnings was published and focused more on number – much less about its sister ELG, shape, space and measure. With fears of a narrowing curriculum hidden behind a bid to address workload, could we be expecting a narrowing of the ELG including maths?

Shape, space and measure (SSM) is so important not only for the breadth of learning for children in EYFS, but also the depth. SSM is more than learning about shapes. These often make up part of the knowledge a child often enters Nursery with via home learning. Even so, this is not considered age-appropriate until 40-60 months. SSM allows children to explore their blossoming creativity and critical thinking; one of the Characteristics of Effective Learning which, incidentally, also have to be reported to parents at the end of the Reception year along with attainment in the ELG’s.

At the end of Reception is when a child is also deemed to have reached a Good Level of Development (or not…). To achieve this they have to achieve the ELG in the Prime Areas (Communication & Language, PSED and Physical Development) as well as Maths & Literacy.

Maths is made of two ELGs – ‘Number’ and ‘Shape, Space & Measure’. So what is it about  SSM that may be seen in some quarters as not as important or relevant as Number?

Let’s have a look at the ELG:

‘Children use everyday language to talk about size,
weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money to
compare quantities and objects and to solve problems.
They recognise, create and describe patterns. They
explore characteristics of everyday objects and shapes
and use mathematical language to describe them’.

When the ELG’s were changed in 2012′ ‘Problem Solving’ was removed as part of the ELG in its own right (it had previously been called ‘Problem-solving, Reasoning & Numeracy).

Problem-solving and reasoning were, quite rightly in my opinion, given a high status alongside number. With the introduction on ‘Maths’ as a replacement to PSRN in 2012, problem-solving still appears, but in the SSM ELG above.

So now to 2018, where greater emphasis than ever is placed on number, what is to become of problem-solving? How will it be worked into the new ELG’s? If at all?

Looking at the ELG above, let’s consider it’s relevance and purpose, and how fundamental it is to developing the life-skills and questioning characteristics needed for future study.

Children use everyday language to talk about size,
weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money

At what point will this NEVER be useful for children to be able to have a grasp of? Talk about size comes into every single day of their young lives, whether it be regarding their shoes or the size of the banana they want for snack. An understanding of something as ‘too small’ or too large’ allows them to make choices.

Having an understanding of time will play heavily in their future routines and expectations. How will they understand what increasing demands of their time and pace in school mean if they haven’t played all those games requiring speed? A group of children were taking it in turns recently (yes, tolerating delay is in there at 30-50 months and requires a grasp of time and of waiting) to ride their scooters down a ramp. I added a further dimension to it by ‘timing’ them in seconds (bring in number). The learning of fast, faster, fastest was a natural and purposeful outcome. Furthermore children recorded their ‘scores’ with chalk. We then added distance by rolling things down the ramp. Along with fastest children could talk about ‘furthest’. This led onto a whole morning of problem-solving – why did some things go further? Faster? How could we increase the speed? All of this was with children aged 3-4. Their natural curiosity knows no bounds. They persevered. I wondered how long the learning would have lasted, or how deep it would have gone, had I tried to sit them down and ‘teach’ these concepts on the carpet in a traditional sense?


Another day we were at role-play in the doctor’s surgery. A midwife had been to visit – some great language resulted from a reluctant speaker who had just had a new sibling. The midwife showed us she weighs babies on home-visits. The children were excited to apply their new knowledge with the dolls in the surgery. They were skilful in their handling of the equipment, and compared weights using mathematical language of ‘heavy’ and ‘light’. We then added balances to the provision – they found using these much easier once they had an understanding of light and heavy. We could then explore new language of balance, more and less. “Ahhh like when we balance on the beams – if we go all on one side we fall off” piped up one child. Boom.

Children’s experience of the world profoundly impacts on both their knowledge and understanding of it. But definitely understanding. So much so, when the EYFS framework was re-written in 2102 ‘Knowledge and understanding of the world’ was re-named ‘Understanding the World’. And this links so closely with shape space and measure. The emphasis for shape for example is initially very much on looking at shapes and patterns in the environment around them. Taking them outdoors to look at patterns in nature. We found for example that every buttercup in the garden had 5 petals. It wasn’t the number 5 that had them in awe I can assure you. Although we did use that as a way to focus on number. It was the search of some 200 odd buttercups and finding out they were all the same! And that one highly curious child determined to disprove what we had ‘discovered’ – eventually by pulling off a petal and trying to convince us he had found one with 4 petals… We then went on to explore our creativity and use the flowers to make patterns and pictures.


The ELG refers to ‘characteristics of everyday objects’ – it does not say the characteristics of plastic 3D shapes. While we may use these to aid our teaching and exploration, the emphasis is, as it should be in EY, about what is purposeful to the child. So that maths conversations about shape become part of everyday language.

None of this is to say number is not equally important, particularly as children learn about the world around them. It gives them the aid to measure by. Their age is particularly important to them at 4 or 5. 6 is the next milestone and they talk about ‘going to be 6’ like it is a lottery win. Number is important and relevant to them  – to an extent. But no more than, and not at the cost of shape space and measure, and how it moulds their critical thinking. A talented EYFS practitioner friend of mine recently made me laugh by referring to asking a child deep in thought and exploration of a group of snails and their shells ‘How many’, as a ‘mood-hoover’. And this can be true. Often the moment you ask ‘how many’ a great conversation with a child can hit a wall. I’m not saying we don’t learn to count, but by doing so through regularly playing games where counting is required (competition can be a great friend to an observing EY teacher!) the counting becomes purposeful and relevant. It wasn’t relevant to the snail study and the learning turned cold.


We need to keep maths relevant, and without paying due reverence to the inter-twined nature of SSM and Number, we do the children a disservice by potentially removing an array of life-skills around routine. structure and questioning that will ultimately not help them to become school-ready.



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