Maths Investigation Area for Open-Ended Learning

Set up a specific area for playful maths investigations at home or in the classroom, to encourage plenty of open-ended play and self-directed learning with a range of inviting materials.

Maths investigation area

This post is part of an ongoing series called Exploring Reggio, in which we look at some of the ideas that characterise the ideas in Reggio Emilia early  years education. If you are interested to read along with me and my 5 co-hosts,  An Everyday StoryLearn with Play at Home, Twodaloo, One Perfect Day and Racheous, we post every two weeks over a board range of subjects which we hope will eventually cover most areas that interest us all. You can read my introduction to Reggio in the first post here.

Exploring Reggio button

In Reggio settings, children are considered able to direct their own interests and learning through free investigations with stimulating materials in an enriching environment. There is always an emphasis on a multi-sensory, tactile, hands-on approach, physically learning through moving and touching objects in creative play. Most of all, maths should be real, relevant and relatable.Maths resources for open-ended learning

Maths lends itself particularly to being discovered and understood with the hands. I remember struggling as a child with the abstract concepts that were thrown out to us in the classroom, about division, fractions and complicated sums. The numbers didn’t make any sense to me from a practical point of view- I needed to feel them and see them to understand the concepts. Children learn to count objects reliably not through rote counting, but by the physical picking up and moving of objects, consolidating 1:1 correspondence and understanding the concept of quantity as they do so. You could make a case that if,  (for some reason) you could only have one set of toys or materials for learning in an educational setting, they should be maths based.

Of course, as with most things in life, we learn best by doing things in a real-life, practical context. For example, simply baking some cupcakes lends itself to the most amazing maths learning experience. Reading the numbers in the recipe, weighing ingredients, comparing quantities and amounts, using 1:1 correspondence to fill the muffin tin holes with cases, counting out spoonfuls of cake mixture into each one, using  timer to wait for them to cook and cool, adding candles or decorations to make patterns etc. But I do believe it’s also important to have engaging materials that are just so inviting to children that they can’t help but learn as they use them. Open Ended Maths Materials

We have always had a very hands-on approach to maths in our home, stemming from my teaching past, and have collected and made all sorts of easy improvised materials over the years. Anything that is safe can be used to count, sort, order and weigh, and the more part of an everyday, real-life experience the better.

I set up a maths investigation area on a table top in one corner of our home for plenty of open-ended, self-directed maths play. I included as many different materials as possible that could cover a broad range of learning possibilities, depending on how they are used and the ways that they are combined in play. From weighing, measuring, sorting, ordering, patterning, exploring shapes, classifying, counting and recognising numerals, all are possible with this table-top set up. [Side note: if I were doing this in a classroom I would have these materials in a larger space, freely accessible on low open shelving, rather than all together in such a close space.]

Maths Learning Area

Here’s a list of what I set out for them to discover and play with at this time:

basket with numbered pegs for counting and ordering

basket of conkers/ chestnuts (replace with any natural material e.g. pebbles, leaves, flowers)

bowl of  assorted Seashells  in various colours, patterns, shapes and sizes for sorting and counting

ball of no-cook play dough

tray of wooden numbers

wooden coloured pencils and notebook

plastic food tray with lavender sensory salt for writing numbers in, counting objects into etc

pipe cleaners for threading beads onto etc

rainbow gnomes

egg carton

muffin tin

paper cake cases

empty wooden bowl

measuring tape

coloured, wooden shapes in compartmented tray (Spielgaben toys in an old Melissa and Doug toy container)

Russian nesting dolls 

weighing scales

6 jam jars filled with small materials: buttons, transparent counters, plain and coloured matchsticks, glass gems, glass pebbles threading beads, straws cut to a variety of different lengths

Counting and sorting materials for the maths area

As you can imagine, the number of possibilities for maths play investigations is huge and their play could extend for a very long time with so many ways to combine the materials here. I included lots of containers and trays for sorting, 1:1 correspondence and simple counting games, as well as making collections and sorting items out or grouping them together.Wooden numerals for counting and ordering

They were very excited to get their hands on the materials and absorbed themselves in their own play for a long time, not even stopping to relate what they were doing to each other. Baby Bean was very keen to join in and enjoyed filling up the trays and their various compartments the most. She filled the muffin tin with the paper cases, (building on a previous experience from baking real cakes together) and added lots of items into them.

Counting and sorting with maths resources

They were very keen in the nesting dolls and I added another set so they could play together. Pop ordered all the tops by size and then all the bottoms, then tried to work out how to fit hem back inside each other in the right order, which was a great problem solving exercise, and all self-directed.

The sensory salt tray proved very popular, not so much for writing numerals into but for lining up the small resources from the jars in. Big sister Cakie lined up the gems in the salt and made patterns with the shapes. Her favourite item, however, was the measuring tape, and once we had established that it was marked out in centimetres as opposed to miles (her original thought!) she happily measured absolutely everything she could lay her hands on in the room, including both of her younger sisters!

I am looking forward to observing how the play develops over time and what the most favourite resources tend to be.Ordering with Russian dolls

Please join us again next time as we explore our next subject in the Exploring Reggio series.

Now pop on over to see:

Making teen numbers

Materials for open-ended maths

More to come!

Want MORE maths ideas? See our entire Playful Maths series here!

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  1. says

    Oh wow. Completely in love with your materials! Love, love the chalkboard with numbers to 50 and where on earth did you get those tree branch pencils? So cool! If my daughter were to come over to this set-up, she would be busy for hours! I just want to jump in too. Gorgeous!

  2. Christina says

    This is awesome! Thank goodness for the internet, with out it I would not be aware of all the wonderful learning things I can do with them. I am so excited to put a math table together for my little ones. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Tracey says

    Wonderful ideas, will use these at home with my children and at my setting. Thank you for making me think about such great every day objects and free resources that support maths and language in so many ways.

  4. says

    What a lovely setting. Some really wonderful resource. Do you feel disappointed if the kids do not take to the set-up the way you hoped they would? How do you go about it? I seem to face that issue with Aarya (son) :)

  5. Charlotte says

    LOVE this, set this up straight away this morning. Have added bottle lids, pom poms, pasta shapes and spagetti. My son loves it. Thank you for all your ideas, keeps both my children (3 & 1) busy for hours :-)

  6. Jolene says

    Thanks very much for Sharing! Such amazing ideas and I cannot wait to set this up for my daughter.I so wish I had learnt maths concepts in this way as a child!

  7. Sandy says

    Love your ideas! As a primary school teacher now full time mom, I love these hands-on activities!
    How old are the kids you set this table for? I often ask myself if I challenge my daughter enough or if I am expecting to much from her;-)
    Thanks for sharing,

  8. says

    This really is such an inspirational collection. We introduced a “natural” approach to our Nursery maths area last year but found it incredibly hard to tidy up at the end of the session. I’ll definitely use some of these ideas for my area but perhaps work out some way for the children to tidy it up independently.