Transforming learning in early mathematics

Exploring the processes of hands-on learning, this research has led to the development of an innovative digital start-up to engage young children in mathematics.


Research hubs

Digital Education

Children and Young People

Research expert

Dr Andrew Manches

Research centre 

Centre for Research in Digital Education


What was the problem? 

New technologies play an ever-increasing role in young children’s lives, but how might this impact on their learning? To find out, it’s important to understand how children think and learn with materials in their early years, that is, when aged up to around eight.

Exploring the role of physical actions in children’s thinking requires new research methods; hands-on approaches which use both real-world and digital objects. It is only by comparing children’s interaction with both resource types that we can identify the role of physical action in learning and the likely impact of new devices. 

What did we do?

Dr Andrew Manches has spent over fifteen years working with children, first as a teacher, and then as a researcher. In January 2013, he was awarded a Future Research Leader grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to look at interaction, embodiment and technologies in early years learning.

Running over the course of three years, the research addresses long-standing theoretical questions about the relationship between what we say and gesture, and how we interact with materials. Specifically, it focuses on hands-on learning experiences in mathematics.

Using video, the research team has examined the behaviour of over 200 children. Comparisons centre on the way the children explain number concepts - such as why 2+7=3+6 - using non-digital materials, like wooden blocks, and digital objects moved by mouse, touchscreen (e.g. iPad) or gesture recognition device (e.g. Kinect). 

What happened next? 

For teachers and education policy makers, the project has provided much-needed evidence on the importance of providing young children with hands-on learning experiences. The project has raised teacher awareness of the significant role gesture may play in supporting mathematics as shown in an animation created from the project.For designers, particularly those working in the digital sphere, it has informed their thinking on how we can create novel learning materials using emerging forms of technology.

Such is the potential for commercial application that Dr Manches has developed a new Scottish company, PlayTalkLearn, to realise an evidence-led digital design, Numbuko, for early maths learning. As well as findings from the ESRC-funded research, the design also draws on the expertise of a wider group at Moray House School of Education, for example, Professor Lydia Plowman’s work on guided interaction.


Co-founded by Zakir Mohmed, and with support from Sheila Robinson, a University of Edinburgh business mentor, PlayTalkLearn’s key product is a set of intelligent blocks that use colour to bring mathematics patterns to life, providing an engaging way for young children to play, talk and learn mathematics at home or at school.

PlayTalkLearn has found increasing success, most significantly £100,000 funding from Scottish Enterprise in 2015 through the SMART: SCOTLAND scheme. 

Scottish Enterprise is delighted to assist each of these companies. We hope this will be the first step on the path to sustainable growth for the companies and we look forward to further supporting them as they grow and develop. 

Michael CannonSMART: SCOTLAND director, Scottish Enterprise