Over the past year there have been many opinions expressed by trainers, practitioners, managers and advisers about whether you need to have specific areas within your setting or not. Thought it was about time that I added my thoughts into the mix !
More specifically I wanted to look at whether we need a specific maths area in our early years settings. Some have been told they definately do need them and others use the arguement that if maths is everywhere then why do we need them at all? My views on the matter have developed as a direct result of our own journey in our setting to provide the best maths provision we can.
Over the past 3 years we have played around with lots of different ideas and approaches, we have moved furniture, taken furniture away, added furniture and moved furniture back! By trialling and observing how children use resources, then evaluating and reflecting we have been able to develop provision tailored to our children in our setting. A lesson which is well worth remembering - nowhere in the EYFS does it say how you should set your resources up and it even says in the new ofsted guidance that there is no biase to any specific approach or way of working. So what works for us may not work for you - but the process will hopefully help you find your own way.
A few years ago our ongoing analysis of children's progress showed a need for more maths input ad led not only to inset training and professional development for all staff but to a reflection on our existing provision. We looked at what we had available for supporting maths development and we also looked at where and how we were offering these resources.
Some professionals argue that if you provide maths in all areas there is no longer a need for a specific maths area within your setting. The arguement being that if children are led to think that maths can only happen in the maths area then opportunities within the sand, block play, roleplay and book corner are being missed. I understand this arguement and have seen this happen in settings where the activities are highly planned by adults. I do think that this arguement is more about adult awareness and input than physical resource set up. However, we operate an approach where developing confidence and independence in play and choices is paramount; and find that having resources readily available in a specific area helps our children to be more independent. We use the maths area not as an area for only "doing maths" but an area where a wide variety of mathematical tools and equipment can be easily found and accessed. We have baskets for rulers, tape measures, coloured shapes, dice and counters all easily accessible at any time ( and heres the important bit!) to use in ANY area in the setting. Yes, they might be in one area but they are not confined to that area. Children come to the area in search of tape measures to explore their train tracks, to find dice to collect gems and to access extra scales for weighing in the kitchen role play. They know its ok to come and take things to their play but they also know where to find things! Our maths area allows our children to make confident independent choices about how to extend their play and their ideas. It gives childrem confidence and a sense of ownership in their learning environment when they know where they can find things. Imagine how disconcerting it would be for you is the cultery draw in your kitchen was moved around every day!
During the development process we have observed and assessed lots of different aspects of our maths area to make it work in this way. We have looked carefully at " what" resources we provide that are appealling, useful and easy to use independently. As part of the process we ceased using LOTS of commercially manaufactered counting resources ( believe me we had A LOT of them when we started!). We watched the children playing, took note of the kinds of resources they wanted to use as part of their play and looked for fun and inspiring ways of including their interests in what we provided. We noted the most useful resources and made sure we had lots of them. And we added lots of open ended resources which could be used in lots of ways to access maths across the board.
At the same time we looked at where maths was happening and where it could potentially happen in other areas of the setting and made sure we added additional resources to support this (see later info on sand play maths).
Alongside an audit of what we used, we looked at HOW these were available and WHERE. We moved away from lots and lots of plastic drawers full of colourful plastic counters with lovingly laminated labels to low sided baskets with interesting multi sensory resources on open shelves where children could see exactly what was available and take the whole lot with them easily if needed. It actually meant that rather than providing MORE resources for maths we actually provided LESS resources but more carefully chosen ones. This process wasnt an over night success, we have spent months trialling different basket contents and observing what the children do with them and what appeals, not to us as adults, but to them as multisensory explorers of ther own environment. We have ended up moving some resources from other areas. Our reflective pebbles are now a favorite in our investigation station rather than our maths area and the tiny cars and planes in our small world area are now a firm favourite in our maths area for use on our number roads. Flexible resourcing means constantly reflecting and changing the resources to best suit the children and their interests. Our numerals now show frozen characters and power rangers and we have loads of coloured sand timers for use all over the place!
We did also look at where to put the maths resource area. Initially opening out onto the busy thoroughfare of the main room we quickly found that children actually wanted a little quiet nook to explore some of the resources without disturbance or fear of accidental distruction. Young children's in built love of small spaces, which plays such a part in good communication friendly environments, applies equally to spaces for exploration and thinking. So after some experimenting as to where to place the nook area we have finally settled on a semi enclosed area created by an L shaped book case next to our block play area. We have found that children readily interchange the resources from both areas, using shaped floor tiles as part of their constructions or building towers of cylinders with blocks and timers. It is working well for us now but we still assess regularly and may, with a new cohort of children have to move it all over again.
As I mentioned earlier, we did, at the same time, assess our maths provision and support in all other areas around the setting. We changed our sand utensils over to metal treasures of different shapes and sizes (treasure to measure) to add extra excitement and mathematical potential in the sand play. We looked for objects to help enhance understanding of size, capacity (full, empty, more , less etc), counting, sorting and patterning as well weight and length at the same time as providing multisensory play for developing new brain connections. We added numerals to most areas throughout the setting, shapes for patterning on the light table, numbered equipment for role play (phones, calculators, remote controls, tills, clocks and scales) and cards for counting out how many pieces of snack to take.
So as you can see I DO think we should be aware of the potential for maths provision in all areas of early play, but I do also think that there is a place for centralised resources that help children to build confidence and independence. But as I said at the beginning, this is just my view and, unlike some, I don't think one size fits all. We have to take time to observe our own children, to play alongside them, to try new things and to admit when things don't work. Your environment is as much a part of your reflective practice as your learning provision. Stop, look and listen this year and dont be afraid to try new things.