Maths Countdowns

Countdowns are fun, nerve-wracking and prepare us for something exciting that will happen when we get to zero. In this series of activities we look at countdowns, which, at this time of year includes the countdown to Christmas, most often denoted in the chocolate advent calendar.


Activity One: What Are Countdowns and Where Are They Used?

Suitable for: Rec to Year 6

Learning Focus: 

  • To be able to recognise what a countdown is and why it’s used
  • To suggest situations where a countdown may be an appropriate introduction


Ask the pupils if they know what a countdown is and when it’s used. Common answers include when a rocket is about to launch or to start a race when we might say 3, 2, 1, GO! instead of ‘Ready, steady, go!’ Perhaps show them the intro to the Thunderbirds programme found at:

Ask them to say what other things they might count down to – holidays, birthdays, New Year’s Eve and, of course at this time of year, Christmas.

Ask them to think about this question . .

Is a countdown a measure of time, and if so, does it use standard units of measurements like seconds, minutes or hours?

How do they ‘countdown’ to an event? Some will say by counting the number of sleeps, or school days, others may say by marking the time off on a calendar or simply by calculating the time on their watch.

At this time of year, Advent is considered the countdown to Christmas and almost all the class will tell you that they countdown in chocolates. Have an advent calendar to hand. Ask them is it really a countdown or is it a ‘count up’ for the numbers we choose each day begin with 1 and then end on Christmas Eve at 24.

Activity Two: Counting Down to Christmas – Fractions

Suitable for: Year 2 to Year 6

Learning Focus:

  • To know that Advent is the religious countdown to Christmas
  • To be able to understand that points in a countdown can be expressed as a fraction


In the previous activity we learned that Advent is a countdown to Christmas with the last window opened on Christmas Eve, waiting for the big day after. The number of windows on an Advent calendar means that it’s great for calculating fractions and, if you’ve got a class calendar, instead of randomly choosing a class member to open a window, ask them to say what fraction of Advent has passed. Because there are 24 windows on the calendar, you’ll have lots to work with and plenty of scope for simplifying fractions: 1/24 then 1/12, then 1/8, then 1/6 and all this in the first four days! You can ask pupils you think will know the answer or do a group exercise, asking them to write down the answer then selecting a pupil to open the window from those who got the answer correct.


Activity Three: Countdown to Races and Events, How Accurate Are We?

Suitable for: Rec to Year 6

Learning Focus:

  • To be able to count accurately in seconds
  • To recognise where accuracy in time may or may not be important


Again relating to the first activity, this time the objective is to see how accurately the pupils can judge the passage of time.

Counting in seconds is difficult for anyone but people are often encouraged to use a word after the number that, saying it, will last for a second – practise with different words, trying ‘one elephant, two elephants’, first, until each pupil has a word that will help them judge a second. Put it to the test by setting a timer to ring after 30 seconds and ask the pupils to count down in their heads, putting their hand up when they reach zero and see who gets closest.

For minutes, a fun activity is to boil eggs. Everyone knows that the perfect soft boiled egg with a yummy runny yolk, takes three minutes. To begin with, ask the pupils to sit quietly and consider the passage of time for a minute before telling them when a minute is up. Now get them to use their ‘seconds word’ to try to judge it more accurately.

Mark eggs with the initials of the pupils in permanent pen then place them in a pan to cook – be careful with health and safety as well as any allergies to egg.

When the water comes to the boil, turn it down to simmer them then ask the children to start timing three minutes in their head. When they indicate three minutes have elapsed, take the egg from the water and cut it open to see if they timed it right.

Activity Four: How Do We Feel During a Countdown?

Suitable for: Rec to Year 6

Learning Focus:

  • Be able to identify feelings building through anticipation
  • To understand how our body reacts during a countdown


More of a PSHE lesson than maths, this activity considers how a countdown makes us feel and how it prepares us for what’s going to happen.

Ask the pupils how they feel as each day gets closer to Christmas – you’ll get suggestions like ‘excited’, ‘looking forward’, worried perhaps, over whether they’ve been good enough for Santa to call.

Ask them to remind you what the purpose of a countdown is – to prepare the participants for the big moment, starting a race, Christmas, waking up on the morning of a birthday, the start of a test even.

Take them outside and tell them that you are going to ask them to run a race. Do a countdown for the start but encourage them to remember what they were thinking about and doing during the countdown.

In class, give them a timed test, perhaps on tables or a wordsearch. When it gets close to the end of the test, tell them when there is a minute left, thirty seconds then count down from ten to the end of the test. Once more, ask them to think about how they felt in that last minute when they were ‘against the clock’.

You are likely to get different reactions if some have finished the exercise, others nearly there and others some way off.

Collating the emotions, ask them whether they think their feelings helped them or not. The adrenaline release that happens in a countdown should help them become sharper or faster but it can also bring on a ‘sicky’ feeling, fear or panic.

Ask those who felt calm and relaxed during the countdown, what they did to get into that state of mind and see whether it can help the ones who panicked.

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