Assessing children’s understanding during play-based maths activities

When we ask children to explain their thinking to us we gain an insight into what they already know, says CAROLINE COHRSSEN. She encourages us to reach beyond what we’re comfortable doing in our work with young children in her blog (originally posted in 2015). Cohrssen translates Early Years Learning Framework concepts on mathematical language and symbols into practical steps and conversation starters that foster young children’s deep thinking. 

Engaging responsively with children during play requires educators to be sensitive to children’s learning needs as well as to their social and emotional needs. Many of us feel comfortable having conversations with children when we’re reading books or playing outdoors, but less comfortable having conversations with children that enable us to assess their mathematical thinking during play. In fact, encouraging children to explain their thinking is important because this gives us an insight into what they already know.

The Early Years Learning Framework states clearly that educators should provide opportunities for children to ‘create and use representation to organise, record and communicate mathematical ideas and concepts’ and to ‘make predictions and generalisations about their daily activities, aspects of the natural world and environments, using patterns they generate or identify and communicate these using mathematical language and symbols’.

I watched video recordings of educators presenting play-based mathematics activities to small groups of children during typical early childhood programs. Educators were prompted to ask questions that encouraged children to think mathematically and to explain their thinking. For example, during an activity that requires children to peg number cards on a washing line, educators were encouraged to ask questions like, ‘Does it go before or after this number?’,  ‘Which two numbers should it go between?’ and, ‘That’s interesting! How did you work that out?’

Questions like these require a child to think deeply, reason and communicate their thinking. Children’s responses to questions reveal both their number knowledge and the reasoning strategies they use to solve problems. Similarly, when educators join an activity and wait quietly for the child to start the conversation, the dynamic of the conversation changes – suddenly the child leads the discussion and the educator responds. This provides us with an opportunity to assess the child’s understanding unobtrusively while we play together.

After using the activities, some educators revealed that children’s mathematical thinking surprised them at times—either because it far exceeded what the educator had expected, or because the children were working towards mastering concepts that the educators thought the children had already acquired. Precise assessment of children’s understanding is important. We need to assess what children already know before we can plan activities that authentically scaffold their numeracy skills.

Some characteristics of the conversations during these play-based mathematical activities stand out. Sometimes educators repeat a question to support a child’s sustained attention. Sometimes educators ask a question of one child, give the child time to think and observe other children in the group taking part in the activity, and then return to the first child. This gives the first child an opportunity to learn from his or her peers. Purposeful pausing during conversations helps to slow the pace of the activity down, making activities more relaxed and creating opportunities for children to think, make suggestions and volunteer their own ideas. Purposeful pauses support responsive engagement.


Senior lecturer and researcher at Melbourne University, Caroline Cohrssen is currently working on an exciting project into young children’s concept formation skills.

Caroline Cohrssen will be presenting her latest work on preschool mathematical games and a workshop on reflective practice at the 2018 ECA National Conference in Sydney from 19–22 September. Join over 2000 early childhood education and care professionals to learn more about fostering young children’s foundation mathematical and spatial skills and reflective approaches to practice. To book nowclick here.

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Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is employed at the University of Melbourne as a senior lecturer/researcher on the Master of Teaching (Early Childhood). She is interested in the home learning environment and young children’s demonstrations of mathematical thinking, not only in what they say but also in what they make, draw and do. Caroline’s work aims to equip pre-service early childhood educators to recognise mathematical thinking, plan playful activities and interact purposefully with children to support and extend children's emerging mathematical skills and understanding. 'Her current research focuses on four year old children's demonstrations of spatial thinking.

One thought on “Assessing children’s understanding during play-based maths activities”

    Niccola says:

    Hi Caroline
    I loved your article and completely agree with you. I am an Early Childhood Teacher in WA and teach a class of three year old children. I write an ideas blog for teachers, parents and care givers of young children. I would love you to stop by and check it out at some stage.

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