Narrowing the Gap in EYFS Mathematics: is it possible?

Whiteboard with numbers

Learning in lockdown is tricky on so many levels, so how can we support our youngest phase of learners to keep learning, remain motivated, stay confident, and above all, look forward to getting back to school?

Children’s learning has begun long before they start school. Even very young children wonder about the world around them, create solutions to their problems, and make sense of their surroundings in logical, mathematical ways.

For some, this has been a rich and rewarding experience but for others, less so. This working group arose out of the idea that not all children start their Reception year with the same mathematically rich experiences, and this can hamper or delay their chances at accessing the EYFS mathematics curriculum.

Group dynamics
We sent out the invitation to all teachers across the region (Norfolk and Suffolk), with spaces for 8-12 teachers. But there was a problem. Within a couple of days 22 teachers had already requested to join. So, we rolled up our sleeves, found a bigger venue and opened the doors.

We had teachers from both Norfolk and Suffolk, mainly from EYFS, a few from KS1 and even a couple from KS2 (including subject leaders). Whatever phase or age of children teachers supported in their day job, they all worked either in or with EYFS children and practitioners. The wealth and spread of different phases and experiences simply helped to strengthen the group dynamics, as the flow of questions between colleagues was limitless and hugely valuable.

Starting points
Where to start? With only five sessions to meet as a group (a mixture of days and half days) we needed to be selective. There are many frameworks we could have used but we decided to go with the Big Ideas of Early Mathematics from The Erikson Institute ( A group of seven researchers and practitioners, who form The Early Maths Collaborative at Erickson Institute, have offered competencies needed to provide quality mathematics education to children in the early years. The ideas are developmental and build on children’s own thinking and encourage a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

Erickson Big Ideas of Early Mathematics:

  • Sets
  • Number Sense
  • Counting
  • Number Operations
  • Pattern
  • Measurement
  • Data Analysis
  • Spatial Relationships
  • Shape

While we touched on all Big Ideas we particularly focused on Sets, Counting, Pattern and Spatial Relationships.

Each Professional Development day focused on one or two Big Ideas and we used a range of activities, which we hoped would enrich children’s early mathematical experiences. For example;

  • Making biscuits for teddy
  • Tasks that involve routines (e.g. lining up, washing hands before lunch)
  • Building shapes out of lego
  • Using fiction books that have a mathematical theme.

Other activities helped to support EYFS mathematical subject knowledge. For example:

  • Exploring the counting principles
  • Using structured and non-structured mathematical manipulatives
  • Understanding the importance of pattern

The activities we explored were intended to consolidate and extend teachers’ professional learning on both subject and pedagogical levels, create opportunities in their settings to test and refine practice, consider how to change school approaches in both the short and long term and follow a small group of children on their journey this year.

What did we find out?
At the start of the project we discussed different ways to capture evidence of what children could and could not do, linked to the Big Ideas. Teachers were given a choice of tasks to use and we agreed that focusing on a small number of children (around 6) would be manageable. Although teachers only collected data on their target children, they all reported that the impact of the project was manifesting itself throughout daily EYFS life and for all children. Even so, it was really helping those children who had missed out on aspects of their pre-school learning too. Narrowing the gap really can help all children – and narrow the gap it seems!

Childs drawing

However, COVID-19 has meant that our last meeting has been suspended – and the post-project data presentations. However, we don't really need the data to tell us what a success this project has been.

There were so many! However, the most repeated ‘wow’ moment I kept hearing was linked to counting. To be fair, we probably all thought we knew how to teach counting and how to spot if children can count or not. However, once we had explored the layers and layers involved with children being able to count the teachers soon realised that there is more to this than perhaps we thought. I have never heard so many conversations that revolved around cardinality, abstraction principles or order irrelevance! It was fab!

Educational toys

There were also lovely surprises along the way too. One of the sessions included a ‘bring and share’ slot, where teachers brought work, examples of activities, photographs and vignettes of classroom practice. All of the ‘bring and share’ examples were superb but the crocheted Numberblocks definitely stole the show!

We also decided to collate many of the ideas and activities we had been trying out into a booklet. Using a version of the NRICH ( Early Years template, we created 25 activities that will support children in developing number sense, looking for patterns, thinking mathematically, playing mathematical games and overall developing positive dispositions towards mathematics - all mathematical characteristics that enable children to access the EYFS curriculum effectively.

What did the teachers have to say about being part of the group?
It is easy to write that all of the teachers were hugely enthusiastic and totally committed to being part of the group – but they were! All teachers attended every session (exceptional circumstances being the exception) and always came equipped with either activities they had tried or the gap tasks completed.

Even in the current situation, with our last meeting disappearing with lockdown, the response has been to try and hold the meeting when we can.

I have loved being part of the group. It sparked a real love of early maths and made me look at early childhood experiences with new eyes. I see maths and numbers everywhere!

I have loved being part of this group, collaborating ideas and learning new things to take back and watch the children thrive from the activities. It was great to make our own lesson plans and to work together, hearing different people's experiences. I am so grateful for being part of the group.

Being involved in this course has fired enthusiasm, excitement and ideas to create as many endless opportunities for all children’s inclusion in maths. Allowing some children to feel included and to be able to grasp aspects, which they may have missed, narrowing the gap!

The course is very inspirational!

This project was a delight and a privilege to run. Did it make a difference? Yes – on so many levels!

We are hoping to run similar working groups next year – so look out for details and secure your place!

Further information about the work group can be found on the Angles Maths Hub website

Alison Borthwick