Skip to main content

Small Young Minds Big Maths logo, containing the project title text in a circular logo

Young minds, Big maths

Recent news

We recently had an article published in Mathematics Teaching (the journal of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics). With their kind permission, you can read it here (Going round in circles: Geometry in the early years).

Project details

Young children are instinctive and capable mathematical thinkers 

  • How do we best equip teachers to explore maths with them in their setting?
  • What are the barriers to a broad exploration of maths in early years (EY) settings?
  • Are children in the early years drawn to particular areas within maths?

Young minds, Big maths began as a collaboration between Houghton Community Nursery School (a state maintained nursery school near Sunderland) and the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Durham University. Staff at the nursery reached out to the mathematicians to help them to broaden and deepen their approach to maths. The project is research-based, but also focussed on providing high quality professional development for early years staff. Starting September 2022 there are now 10 more local early years settings involved in the project.

Project aims 

  • To encourage and facilitate deeper thinking about Mathematics for children and staff. 
  • To build maths confidence across each EY setting. 
  • To enable children and staff to explore mathematical ideas across the whole environment.

How does Young minds Big maths work?

Each half term, staff from the EY settings meet with mathematicians to discuss the ideas the children have been exploring and the sorts of activities that have been taking place. The mathematicians suggest links that can be made to mathematics, or ways to extend mathematical explorations or make mathematical links between topics. The project is child-led, with the content of the meetings between EY staff and academics determined by the children’s interests and chosen directions. The EY educators use the meeting to inform their planning and interactions with the children as explorations continue. The success of the project depends heavily on the skill of the EY staff in bringing mathematical ideas to the children in their setting in an engaging way, appropriate to each child. As the project grows, staff at Houghton Community Nursery School are able to support new EY staff as they seek to implement mathematical ideas from the meetings in their own settings.

This enables the children to explore deep mathematical ideas thoroughly in a child-led way that is engaging and accessible, by focussing on their mathematical thinking that is already taking place. Using frameworks such as the van Hiele levels of geometric thinking we can highlight elements of the children’s discussions or explorations, for example, considering the necessary and sufficient properties of a particular shape.

Two of the many highlights so far


An ongoing exploration of circles led children to explore ideas such as:

  • What are the special properties of concentric circles?
  • What is the difference between concentric circles and spirals?
  • How do we find the centre of a circle?
  • Can we make a circle out of sticks?

A photo of slices of beetroot, showing circular layers in the beetroot, along with the quote

The team

Sophy Darwin, Sam Fearn, Rachel Oughton, Norbert Peyerimhoff, Adam Townsend (Department of Mathematical Sciences, Durham University)
David Bolden, Dan Wheadon (School of Education, Durham University)

Sarah Dixon-Jones, Kathryn Nichols, Mrita Mistry (Houghton Community Nursery School)

Ann Dowker (University of Oxford)

Sue Gifford (University of Roehampton)

Catherine Gripton (University of Nottingham)

Helen Williams (Independent Educational Consultant)


  • Rachel Oughton, Kathryn Nichols, David S Bolden, Sarah Dixon-Jones, Sam Fearn, Sophia Darwin, Mrita Mistry, Norbert Peyerimhoff & Adam Townsend (2022) Developing ‘deep mathematical thinking’ in geometry with 3- and 4-year-olds: a collaborative study between early years teachers and university-based mathematicians, Mathematical Thinking and Learning, DOI: 10.1080/10986065.2022.2119497
  • Oughton, Rachel H., Wheadon, Dan M., Bolden, David S., Nichols, Kathryn, Fearn, Sam, Darwin, Sophia, Dixon-Jones, Sarah, Mistry, Mrita, Peyerimhoff, Norbert & Townsend, Adam (2023). Going round in circles: Geometry in the early years. Mathematics Teaching 286: 29-34. Shared with the kind permission of the journal.

Looking ahead

We are in the process of applying for funding to expand Young Minds, Big Maths to other universities and nearby EY settings, and to investigate the effectiveness of this method of CPD on children and staff.