Take a playful, fresh air approach to mathematical development by introducing these outdoor games to your setting, says Judith Dancer…
Playing games outdoors offers a myriad of opportunities for practitioners and children to explore elements of mathematics together. As we know, some children come into group care settings with lots and lots of earlier experience of ‘game playing’, both indoors and outdoors. Some have spent hours with older siblings, carers or family members developing a love of Ludo, snakes and ladders and other board games. Others have played ‘target games’ in gardens, parks and fields. These children are easily identified by practitioners, who build on this knowledge and these skills. But often practitioners are not quite as good at ‘tuning into’ children’s passions around popular culture and sport. Support for the local football team is rarely listed in ‘home interests’ by families discussing their child on entry to the setting or school.
I am privileged to visit many settings, all around the UK, and I have rarely met a young child, who has an interest in football, or particularly in Wales, in rugby, who doesn’t know which team is winning when the score is 2-1 or 36-18! However, this understanding of numbers is rarely built on within settings.
As always, one of the key aspects of the adult role is in developing a stimulating environment. But it is really important to remember that the adult role outdoors, particularly when considering games, includes actively engaging as a co-player with children and extending learning. It is certainly not a ‘hands off’ supervisory role, whatever the weather.
Particularly in settings where outdoors games are not currently routinely available, practitioners need to plan to introduce a small number of games initially, and spend a long time modelling them. As children become familiar and confident, they can take a small bank of ideas and ‘rules’ to develop their own games. Reflecting back on our own childhood, many of us will remember all about the development of ‘rules’ when playing games with older, taller or stronger children. The ‘rules’ often change when the expected outcomes aren’t achieved, for example, when the person ‘in charge’ isn’t winning! So the adult role in playing games is also that of modelling negotiation and compromise, turn taking and ‘fairness’ – important life skills.
Children who have lots of opportunities to join in with games introduced by adults can innovate, change the rules, make up games, creating new and better games of their own.
Remember, planning for games outdoors is not about expensive resources: time, imagination, collections of everyday objects and a big box of large chalks is often all that is needed.
Scoring offers a real purpose for recording numbers, which is sometimes lacking indoors, and can attract children who avoid pencil and paper activities. Practitioners have an important role in supporting children’s attempts at tallying and mathematical graphics and recording outdoors:
● Provide meaningful laminated number lines, at child height, outdoors, for children to refer to. Ensure these include pictorial photographic clues, e.g. 1 bucket, 2 bats, 3 beanbags, 4 balls.
● Create airflow ball tallies – thread sets of 10 small airflow plastic balls onto cord (washing line works well) so that there are four rows of balls – red, green, yellow, blue. As each point is scored, for example, bean bag in a bucket, one ball is moved along the row. The first player to reach ‘10’ wins.
● Model the use of real objects to record scores. Provide a tin filled with wooden clothes pegs. When a score of ‘3’ is achieved, the child fixes three pegs to the rim of the tin. Continue until the tin is empty.
● Make laminated ‘score boards’ – A4 cards, spiral bound that can be turned over to display scores.
● Provide baskets, trays and boxes with pebbles, shells, conkers or fir cones. Start with all the objects in one main tray. As individual children score a point, they take the correct numbers of objects and place them in their own basket/box – who has the most at the end?
● Take all opportunities throughout the day to model ways of recording mathematics; include the use of formal symbols – numerals, including writing scores.
● Offer opportunities to record on a large scale – flipcharts or A1 paper and markers, chalks and chalk boards or white boards and huge markers. Remember that some children are drawn to clipboards and markers and non-permanent marks on individual wipe-off white boards too.
● When acting as a co-player, model tallying – drawing four lines and a fifth line through to show a group of five, or with younger children, using symbols to record scores – three circles to represent the three beanbags in a bucket, perhaps.
● Provide a ‘have-a-go’ environment, where all children’s mathematical graphics are valued and children have opportunities to experiment and practise recording in a variety of ways. Give children lots of time to explore recording so that they can become increasingly familiar and confident with mark making.
● Encourage children to talk about what they are doing and why – they need lots of time to talk about their recordings and think through how effective they are.
Increasing numbers of children have limited opportunities to explore game playing on a large scale outdoors, so we need to offer time, space and opportunities for uninterrupted play. In addition to traditional games, chalked games, target games and parachute games should be an integral part of everyday outdoor play.
All of the experiences described below can be led by an adult initially, but then organised and led by children.
Young children naturally throw balls, so build on this interest with soft, rolled-up socks and buckets with very young children, or more interesting objects with older children. Organise a large ‘target’ such as a huge empty cardboard box or crate. Children take turns to throw a number of Wellington boots into the box. If there are six boots altogether and three are outside the box, how many are in the box?
Build on children’s love of being ‘scared’ in a safe place. Children spend some time ‘swimming’ in different ways – talk about the front crawl, back stroke, breast stroke and butterfly stroke. Children then move around the outdoor area (standing up, moving their arms) while the theme tune from Jaws is played. Stop the music and call out ‘Shark’ – followed by a number. So if ‘five’ is called, children need to get into groups of ‘five’ to form a life raft. Any children not in a group of five are ‘out’ and can play the music and call out the next number. Continue until a winner is found.
This game is similar to the old party favourite musical chairs. Provide enough carpet square (or cushions) for each child in the group. Place the mats in a circle and children move around as the music plays. When the music stops, each child sits on a carpet square. Gradually remove the squares until there is only one child remaining.
This parachute game is reliant on children being familiar with the use of a parachute and enough adults to keep the parachute moving as the children travel underneath. Each child in the group has a farmyard animal name, for example, cow, pig, sheep, horse. All adults and children move the parachute up and down. Call out one name, for example, ‘horse’ and all the ‘horses’ run under the parachute and swap places. After a while, call out ‘farmer’s coming’ and all the children swap places. Outdoorspecial
The bean game
Take turns to suggest ways of moving like ‘beans’, for example:
Jelly beans – wobble arms and legs
Jumping beans – jump up and down
Runner beans – running on the spot
Butter beans – ‘skating’ and slipping about
Bean pole – stand up straight and tall
Bean sprout – start off in a ball and stretch and grow
Mixed beans – children choose however they want to move
Take turns to call out a type of bean. Every so often call out “Four tins of beans” or “Three tins of beans” and children have to get into that sized group.
Place a collection of soft toys on the ground. Use wooden hoopla rings to throw over the toys – who can win the most?
Tin can alley
Stack empty tins (with no sharp edges) into piles of six, three at the bottom, then two, then one. Use rolled-up socks to knock the tins down. How many can you knock down with three socks?
Make skittles with the children. Fill empty plastic bottles with water, sand or gravel. Set them up in a skittle formation – four in the back row, then three, then two and finally one. Take turns to roll the ball – if there are 10 altogether and two are knocked down, how many left standing?
Traditional games still prove very popular. Why not try…
● Duck, duck, goose
● What’s the time, Mr Wolf?
● Follow the Leader
● Isn’t it funny how a bear like honey?
● Sleeping Lions
● Mr Crocodile
When planning, remember that you should…
● Provide an outdoor environment that complements, extends and enhances indoor provision and celebrates the unique qualities of the outdoor environment.
● Plan opportunities that give children time and space to play games on a large scale and be physically active.
● Enjoy participating as a co-player with children as you explore maths games outside together.
Taking part in a game can make maths meaningful for children and is a good way of exploring maths in an interactive way, so have a go!
Judith Dancer is an author, consultant and trainer specialising in communication and language and mathematics. She is co-author, with Carole Skinner, of Foundations of Mathematics – An active approach to number, shape and measures in the Early Years.
9 picturebook activities for nursery children