Learning and Development

Taking Maths Outdoors

  • Taking Maths Outdoors

Numeracy doesn’t have to be dull or confined to the indoors! Judith Dancer suggests some creative (and messy) ways to get children using their mathematical skills in the fresh air…

When we begin to consider maths outdoors, it is worth reflecting on our own childhoods. Outdoor play is one of the things that actually characterises childhood – indeed, many of our favourite childhood memories are of playing outdoors. But what was it that made outdoor play different from indoor play? Of course, we could have played with our jigsaw puzzles, matchbox cars, Lego or dolls outside, but is that what we actually did? The answer is generally no, we didn’t simply repeat indoor play outdoors. Outdoor play was, by its very nature, different.

Sadly, though, as I visit a large number of early years settings, I am seeing increasing numbers of outdoor areas, with huge covered spaces, filled with tables and chairs. So although the children have the benefit of fresh air, they are often simply replicating activities they could do as easily indoors. This really isn’t true, meaningful outdoor play.

So as we plan for outdoor maths learning, we need to ponder on our own early experiences, and the very essence of outdoor play. Our outdoor play often included den-building, tree-climbing, making rose petal perfume, collecting bugs and assorted games with opportunities to shout, sing, experiment, marvel, discover, take risks and explore without the limits imposed by being indoors. As we develop maths outdoors, we need to reflect on the maths experiences we provide indoors and think of ways to extend them outdoors, complementing and enhancing indoor provision and celebrating the unique qualities of the outdoor environment.

The role of the adult

As always, one of the key aspects of the adult role is in developing a stimulating environment with enriched areas of provision. In the outdoor area this means identifying opportunities for maths learning and enhancing provision, and celebrating the unique qualities of the outdoor environment such as collecting and sorting natural objects, measuring huge areas using non-standard measures such as strides, moving really heavy objects together or playing hunting games for escaped dinosaurs or missing mini-beasts. It is important to remember that the adult role outdoors includes engaging as a co-player with children and extending learning; it is certainly not a ‘hands-off’ supervisory role, whatever the weather. Practitioners need to plan to introduce, model and reinforce the use of specific vocabulary, enabling statements and open-ended questions about all aspects of mathematics learning.

In short, supporting children’s maths learning outdoors often means offering them mathematical opportunities that are bigger, noisier and messier, and using the natural and built environment in ways that are less easy indoors.

Extending experiences

Some practitioners make their planning more complicated than is really needed – by identifying different learning intentions/objectives for indoors and outdoors. This really isn’t necessary or desirable and certainly doesn’t support children making links in their learning or revisiting their learning through different experiences and activities.

Once the maths learning intentions for the week have been identified, practitioners should plan experiences indoors and outdoors to support these. Think about experiences that are particularly successful indoors and consider ways to extend them outdoors. So, if repeating patterns with beads and pegs are the focus indoors, the focus outdoors can be making patterns with twigs and rocks in the mud kitchen, rubbing leaves to make patterns, creating obstacle courses – e.g. tyre, crate, tyre, crate – and moving in a repeating pattern: hop, hop, jump, hop, hop, jump. With a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.

Natural resources

Help children to learn maths through all their senses, including touch, smell, sound and taste.

● Explore empty and full using big containers – use wet sand, pebbles, branches and boulders.

● Investigate measures – look at tiny seeds, then measure the height of runner bean plants or tall sunflowers or balance leeks, marrows, potatoes and tomatoes.

● Collect, sort and count natural objects outdoors – leaves, twigs, stones, pebbles, fir cones and flowers.

Bigger, noisier, messier

Increasing numbers of children live in cramped conditions and have limited opportunities to explore space outdoors. We need to offer as much time and space to explore open-ended experiences outdoors as possible.

Muddy wellies
Indoors, children may be measuring using rulers and tapes; outdoors they can explore non-standard measures. Consider beginning with sloppy wet mud and exploring boot tracks. Extend using runny paint and lining paper – who has the longest stride? Who can predict the steps needed from the sandpit to the outdoor house?

Toppling towers
In the indoor construction area, children could be building with small wooden blocks; outdoors they can explore natural or large objects. Provide logs or large amounts of smooth flat stones to stack and knock over. Extend by providing large empty cardboard boxes to pile up – who can build the tallest structure? Which tower is the most stable?

Crash, bang, wallop
The indoor music area offers opportunities to investigate small instruments and make sound patterns; outdoors, children can make lots more noise on a larger scale. Supply new metal dustbins and lids and beaters for a steel band or make a bucket band with assorted plastic buckets, bowls and wooden spoons. Extend by developing a hanging band with saucepans, metal mugs, assorted pans, lengths of metal and plastic piping and metal plates attached to a washing line. Who can repeat back a sound pattern?

Splish, splash, splosh
The indoor water tray can be extended outdoors to give children time and space to explore water, without the need to ‘mop up’. Consider an outdoor water tap, water barrel or hose. Make a collection of large containers to fill and empty, including those with sprinklers. Extend to include large guttering and water pipes in paddling pools. Don’t forget the opportunities to splash in and sweep up puddles! Who can predict how many small buckets fill the watering can?

Mud kitchen
The indoor home corner offers multitudinous chances to explore measures and an outdoor mud kitchen enhances this. Create a mud kitchen – with balances, scales, pots, pans, buckets, wooden spoons, ladles and a water source. Extend by adding laminated recipe or ‘spell’ cards and encourage children to write their own. Who attempts to follow the recipe? How many pebbles balance the bucket of mud?

The outdoor space offers the prospect of pursuing the universally popular activity of creating dens. Supply wooden blocks, crates, tyres, guttering, plastic pipes, cardboard tubes, cardboard boxes, rugs, blankets, duvet covers, lengths of fabric, ties and pegs, metal A frames, planks and barrels. Extend by adding maps and explorer packs to encourage role play. Who plans a construction and who uses a trial and error method? How many children can fit inside the den?

Dig and delve
Children need space to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables, but also space to simply dig, fill containers and transport soil. A clearly identified ‘digging area’ offers this opportunity outdoors. Provide shovels, rakes, buckets, watering cans, sieves and wheelbarrows. Extend by adding a pulley system to support children’s transportation of water and soil. What strategies do children use to move heavy buckets?

Travelling teabags
Many children love to make a mess – and with teabags soaked in coloured paint, they can certainly do that! Encourage the children to predict who can throw their painty teabag the furthest, and then try it and see. Extend by using standard or non-standard measures to compare the throws. Who predicts the distance most accurately?

Numbers everywhere
Numbers surround us everywhere in the environment. Involve families by encouraging them to share a number they see outdoors with their child. This can be done by hard copy, but more easily by sending to a drop box from a mobile phone. Encourage families to include door numbers, bus numbers, price labels, advertising posters or road signs. Collect the numbers and supplement them with your own – create a laminated outdoor number line and model use with the children. Extend by adding a washing line and second set of numbers – encourage the children to order the numbers. Who uses the fixed number line for clues? Who uses number names?

Recording in mathematics

The outdoor area often offers unique opportunities for children to explore mark making in ways that are less threatening and more appealing than indoors – with chalks on paving slabs, with buckets of water and huge brushes or sticks in mud. Scoring offers a ‘real purpose’ for recording numbers that is sometimes lacking indoors, and can attract children who avoid pencil and paper activities. Practitioners have an important role in supporting children’s mathematical graphics and recording indoors and outdoors:

● Take all opportunities throughout the day to model ways of recording mathematics, including the use of formal symbols – numerals. Outdoors, this will include writing scores.

● When acting as a co-player, practitioners should 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 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. Use encouragements to record: “How can we remember that?”

● 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.

Of course, the outdoor environment provides wonderful opportunities for the development of games – but that’s another story for another time!

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 explore mathematics in ways that may be bigger, noisier or messier. And enjoy participating as a co-player with children as you explore maths outside together!

What you need…

To promote mark making and recording, provide these must-have resources…

● Decorators’ brushes and buckets of water

● Playground chalk for marking on the ground

● Large external chalk boards, fixed to the wall

● Lining paper fixed to fences – paint and large brushes

● A wall area labelled ‘Our markmaking area’ for chalking

● A1 flip chart paper on stand and easels

● Clipboards and markers

● A range of different ground textures, including paving slabs for writing

● Wet sand and mud, and a variety of tools to make marks with

Judith Dancer is co-author with Carole skinner of The Little Book of Maths Problem-Solving and Foundations of Mathematics: an active approach to numbers, shape and measures in the early years.