Children learn differently outside, says maths teacher and tutor Nazreen Ichhaporia aka math.mama on Instagram. “There are chances for open-ended exploration, making discoveries, being loud, and sensing the world around them through touch, taste, sound, smell and sight.” The outdoors is ideal for maths learning and in this guest blog, Nazreen shares her easy, accessible outdoor maths activities for kids to try this summer.
Outdoor maths activities for kids: a guest post by Nazreen Ichhaporia
The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged all of us to use technology in different ways. We have continued to learn, live, and stay connected through our screens. Although technology has been essential during this time of isolation and social distancing, carving out time to break away from the screen and get outdoors (depending on your country’s current guidelines for spending time outside) is equally important. Getting outside for fresh air and exercise has many benefits, from boosting the immune system to improving mood and reducing stress.
This is particularly true for children. Outdoor play and learning not only has health benefits but has been tied to greater engagement and academic success. This is perhaps because of nature’s positive effect on mood and motivation for learning.
Nature is an excellent environment for learning maths. Children can count with natural objects and look for the millions of examples of maths in the natural world. British Mathematician Ian Stewart describes mathematics as the science of patterns and nature exploits every pattern there is. Mathematics is indeed all around us. In this blog post, I take these words and plough deeper to present you with easy maths activities you can do with your children outside. Grab some colourful chalk, open the door and make the discoveries for yourself with these fun outdoor maths activities for kids!
Hopscotch has always been a popular game with children. In fact during the UK lockdown, a giant hopscotch game ran about 200 yards up one street in Edinburgh. Local children would collect a piece of chalk, number some squares and learning maths became a community effort.
We took this as inspiration and drew our own game of hopscotch to practice skip counting/multiplication. This time we decided to count in threes, but you can also do this with other numbers.
The way it works is quite simple. Learners throw a stone into the pattern of squares and then hop through without touching the lines to retrieve the stone, all whilst counting in threes. When doing it as a learning activity, it’s important to point out to your children that they are practicing their multiplication tables.
This is a skill that many students can find challenging, so seeing it in a different way can make something that seems very daunting on paper much more manageable and even fun.
Fractions are multifaceted and must be presented in different ways to children to help them fill in a rounded picture of how they work. For this activity, draw a big square with chalk and split it into different shapes.
Ask your child to shade in a half, a quarter or an eighth. See what they come up with and use the activity to discuss how fractions are part of a whole. This task can be completed in many ways and so children can be as creative as they like.
Tallies with sticks
How many sticks do you see in this photo? Is there a more efficient way to present and count them?
It is easier to count the sticks by grouping them in fives and this is called tallying. Try practising counting the individual sticks and then, for older students, show how easy it is to count to big numbers using the groups of five. Afterwards, you can even use your forest materials for a fun game of Pooh Sticks!
Collecting and sorting
Children collect a lot of things when outdoors: branches, sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, pine cones and much more (sometimes even bugs!). Recording and presenting information is a useful skill and can be done as a fun addition to a day of foraging. This activity builds on counting and tallying skills.
First, children must decide how to sort their objects. Deciding by which attribute to sort helps to develop reasoning skills. Ask your child for a justification to unlock this power of reasoning. Why are they sorting by shape or by size or by colour? We sorted rocks according to their size and recorded this information in a frequency table.
Patterns are at the heart of mathematics. The ability to notice and create patterns help us to make predictions based on our observations. Nature is full of patterns and children can create all kinds of patterns with the natural materials they find. You can ask children to continue their patterns or to find missing items in a pattern.
Look out for the Fibonacci numbers
The biggest mathematical secret found in nature is the Fibonacci sequence. The sequence goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on. You may notice that the next number is calculated by adding the two numbers before it. Evidence of the Fibonacci sequence is found throughout nature. Next time your child collects flowers, ask them to count the petals and see if the number of petals total to a number in, or very close to a number in the Fibonacci sequence. It is worth doing this activity so that children appreciate that mathematics is behind the beauty of nature. Children benefit from learning about the Fibonacci sequence because it has applications in many fields such as economics and art which they may study later on at school.
Nature number line
A number line is a straight line with numbers placed at even increments along it. Number lines are a central idea in mathematics and supports children in visualising the relationship of one number compared to another, for example, 5 is between 4 and 6.
This number ordering activity involves tying a piece of string between two trees to create a practical number line. You can provide your child with numbers written on pieces of paper or get children to write their own. Use negative numbers and fractions for a more challenging activity. Children can then order the numbers along the string with clothes pegs, paperclips, or something similar. Ask children if they think a certain number is greater or less than another number and why they think so.
It is important to point out to children that number lines with arrows at either end, as seen in many maths textbooks, indicate that the line goes on forever in each direction because numbers actually go on forever.
Number tracing with rocks
This activity is great for children who are learning how to write numbers. It is normal for young children to write their numbers backwards (mirror writing) and this skill needs practice. Simply use chalk to write a number on the ground. Your child can then use rocks to replicate it. If your child is practising number recognition, draw the numbers on the ground and ask them to trace the ones you call out. You can also ask them to trace the numbers with sticks dipped in water.
Hunting for reflection symmetry is one of my favourite things to do. We always search for symmetry outside and enjoy creating designs with natural materials. Check out our creative design and have a go yourself.
Nature is full of lines and angles. Trees are fascinating to look at: each trunk divides into smaller branches, which divide into even smaller branches. In fact, many trees grow in this repeating pattern, known in maths as ‘branching fractals’. For this activity, we collected some branches to measure the angle (you will need a protractor) created between them and then compared branches to see if the angles were the same. The outdoors is also full of parallel and perpendicular lines. We revised this concept by creating visual representations using sticks.
Create a 2D shape
When outdoors, children become hands-on with materials of different shapes, textures, and sizes. This in itself creates great learning opportunities as children choose materials that will help them explore and express what they are interested in. We were interested in roses and used them to create our favourite shape, a diamond. We worked specifically on quadrilaterals (four-sided shapes) and learned about their properties using natural materials.
Offering children a wider choice of tools can help them explore elements such as dirt, sand and water. You can add props such as buckets, kitchen utensils, shovels, magnifiers, binoculars, tweezers, bottles, and even fancy dress to keep exploration going for longer.
Outdoor water play is important when learning about measurement. Very young children already experience properties such as capacity. Capacity is about the amount of liquid a container can hold. To connect with this concept well, children should experiment with water using different items that can be filled: bottles, funnels, sieves, containers, cups, measuring jugs and spoons. These items help children understand concepts such as full/empty, heavy/light, and big/small. (Ed’s note: Try Learning Resources Splashology! Water Lab.)
Posing questions such as ‘what happens when we pour water from the big jug into the small one?’ helps children develop reasoning skills and the correct mathematical language. Some words used to describe water include its location (up/down/in/out) and movement (fast/slow). Other words help children make comparisons between container capacities (more/less/full/empty) and their shapes (round/big/tall/small).
About the author: Nazreen Ichhaporia is a maths teacher and tutor. Follow her at math.mama on Instagram where she creates and shares easy, creative maths learning ideas, and all the beautiful nature-inspired images you’ve seen here.