Learning Maths Through Outdoor Play
“The best classroom and the widest cupboard is roofed only by the sky” Margaret McMillan
At Woodland Outdoor Kindergarten we are proud to be a child-led, play-promoting, nursery that operates in an open-air woodland environment. Given this, you may think that children at our nursery get little opportunity to expand their numeracy skills. However, that’s where you would be wrong. Our outdoor environment provides multiple mathematical and educational opportunities that children can engage with. In this blog, I will provide some examples of the numerous (pun intended!) opportunities that learning in the outdoors has to offer.
If you think back to your earliest memories from primary school…or even nursery!....it is often the days spent outside – perhaps conker collecting, chalking the playground or school sports day – that form the most memorable moments of your learning. Children learn continuously through a wide variety of play experiences, and by taking play outdoors it further increases children’s motivation and engagement in their learning as it becomes real, relevant and purposeful. For example, our children will gain a much more meaningful understanding of weight by moving different sized logs/rocks around camp than if they were to weigh plastic shapes in a playroom. We also find that children are much more confident using mathematical language, such as less, more, smaller, longer, heavier if what they are talking about and referring to is interesting.
There is an abundance of natural resources to promote numeracy in our woodland environment, allowing for curiosity and exploration of quantity, shape, length, order, weight, and patterns through their imaginative and creative play. Exploring numeracy outdoors enables children to develop an awareness that numeracy is all around them. At Woodland Outdoor Kindergartens, we don’t ‘teach’ them numeracy concepts…they ‘play’ with numeracy. They naturally use their mathematical thinking and learn numeracy skills as part of their outdoor experiences, and they develop incredible competence and confidence as a result.
As many parents are aware, sticks can quickly become a treasured possession for WOK children and whilst they make brilliant magic wands and unicorn horns, they can also be fantastic tools to teach children about measurement. At WOK, we are big fans of muddy puddles and generally encourage children to splash around in them as much as possible. However, there are some occurrences where a puddle may be too deep for safe splashing. In order to ascertain whether puddles are safe to jump in, we encourage children to first use a large stick (or sometimes a branch!) to test the depth of the water. This provides children with the opportunity to learn about risk assessment and measurement simultaneously.
Development of spatial awareness might not be the first thing that pops into your head when thinking about numeracy education. However, as someone who has dyspraxia, I can confidently say that having a good sense of spatial awareness is an incredibly valuable mathematical skill that can be frequently employed in day to day life!
Tree climbing is a very popular pastime at Woodland Outdoor Kindergartens! When learning to climb trees, the children are constantly testing and developing their sense of spatial awareness, for example “am I tall enough to reach that branch?” or “if I move my body in this way could I fit through that gap?” They are also developing an understanding of height and scale, particularly when looking down from their vantage point!
At preschool age, many children exhibit collecting schemas and love to use pots and pans to serve as receptacles for collecting the natural materials they find in the woods; pinecones and conquers tend to be seasonal favorites! These collections can be a fantastic way to help children develop their counting and addition skills, for example “how many pinecones do you have in your saucepan?” or “if you put 3 of your pinecones in Freddie’s saucepan, how many would you have left?”. Children will also often sort these loose parts by shape or size.
Another popular activity that frequently takes place in the woods is den building! Children love to use logs and sticks to create shelters to hide in. When deciding how to best make a den, children need to decide which materials are an appropriate size and additionally which ones are light enough for them to carry/lift. In order to do this, I often witness children comparing the size and weight of different materials such as logs and branches to test their suitability. This further deepens their understanding of weight and measurement.
In addition, building 3D dens encourages children to talk about shape and size, and use estimation “how many children do you think will fit inside the den?” They will also explore and gain first-hand experience of forming angles which, along with their enhanced spatial skills, will aid children in their understanding of geometry when they begin their school journey.