Dr Rachel Oughton from our department of Mathematical Sciences has been working with early years educators to expand the reach of maths among children. Here she talks about the Young Minds Big Maths project that she is leading.

At a conference I recently attended, a speaker likened maths to brussels sprouts: everyone knows it’s good for you, but few people enjoy the experience. We have probably all heard expressions like “maths can be creative” or “maths is everywhere”, but it’s not always easy to get past the vagueness of these statements and do creative maths wherever we find ourselves.

One group of people who have found this are the staff at Houghton Community Nursery school (in nearby Houghton le Spring) which my daughters attended. I knew that they were passionate and creative about subjects ranging from the Penshaw monument to the Lambton Worm, via bees and how wool is made. But when it came to maths, they felt that they rarely ventured far from their safe spaces of small numbers and simple shape recognition and were therefore missing opportunities for exciting and creative mathematical exploration.

In 2020 they reached out to us (the Maths Department engagement group) to see if we could help them to deepen and broaden their coverage of maths in nursery. They planned to focus on ‘Patterns in nature’ that term, and so we decided to meet (on Zoom, because of Covid lockdown) to chat about the different sorts of maths we thought would fit that topic. During the meeting we covered all sorts, from fractals and shapes for flight to time series and symmetry. We didn’t often suggest activities, or ways to teach ideas, but just talked about some of the maths we saw in this broad topic. Shortly after this the nursery asked if we’d be up for more regular meetings, and Young Minds Big Maths was born.

Nursery would keep us updated with what the children were doing, and what they were finding especially interesting, and in our meetings, we’d talk about the different mathematical connections we could make or give ideas for how to think about something in a mathematical way. The University maths people would spark each other off, go in different directions, and sometimes even disagree. This showed the early years (EY) educators that being right first time is not important, and that maths is about exploration. There is seldom only a single right maths question to be asked about something.

As the year progressed, we covered many areas, but one subject we kept coming back to was concentric circles, after a lot of interest in tree slices. This collaboration between mathematicians and early years educators enabled the children and staff to take on questions like “What are the properties of concentric circles?” and “What are the differences between concentric circles and spirals?” This led to two published articles and a surprising level of interest from the maths education community, including our own School of Education, who are now collaborators.

Another area that has gripped the children has been ramps: what is the relationship between the angle, length and height of the ramp? How can we make something roll really fast? Which shapes will roll, slide or stick, and why? Through this, children have encountered areas such as mathematical modelling, mechanics and geometry, as well as thinking hard about how to conduct fair experiments.

In September 2022 the project expanded to 10 more early years settings, reaching hundreds of children. This required a lot of organisation, and volunteers from maths staff, postgraduates and undergraduates, but the effects have been hugely positive. Based on the last three years, we think the Young Minds Big Maths approach works well for several interconnected reasons:

We’re all playing to our strengths: we (the mathematicians) don’t have to think about which ideas the nursery educators will explore with the children, or how they might go about communicating them. We talk about the maths and let the nursery staff use their early years expertise and deep understanding of the children in their care to decide what to use and how.

The people the children trust have become ‘maths people’: the early years educators that the children know, and trust are gaining maths awareness, knowledge and confidence, and this has an effect on the whole atmosphere of nursery in relation to maths. One educator described there being a “buzz” around maths, and another said their children had a “vibrant and joyful mathematics experience”. We don’t think this would have happened if we (the maths engagement group) had gone to nursery to deliver a one-off maths session!

It’s ongoing: the children need time to get to grips with and explore ideas. The educators can gradually scaffold ideas and revisit them in different ways.

It’s child- and educator-led: we don’t set an agenda or curriculum of the maths we think should be known, but instead let the early years education staff tell us what the children are doing. In this way it genuinely fosters maths creativity and ownership, for both educators and children.

Most importantly, many educators described how positively they came to feel about maths, and how they saw the children taking on new ideas and posing their own maths questions.

We’re currently trying to secure funding to extend Young Minds Big Maths as an engagement project and to establish it as a research project, asking questions like: why does it work? What does it teach us about young children and maths? We’re also beginning to set up a website collecting lots of insights from the project so far in the hope that it will be a useful resource for those exploring maths with young children. However, many of the early years education staff really value the human connection, and “being welcomed into the maths community”, and so we’re currently getting ready for a fourth year of Young Minds Big Maths.

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