Learning maths in the great outdoors

Child playing outdoors
Getting their hands dirty can help children discover a passion for maths. Here’s how to make the subject work outside the classroom.

Ask a primary school child what their least favourite subject is, and chances are they’ll say maths. In Pisa international tables of maths attainment, the UK is ranked 27th – its lowest place ever – and the subject can evoke strong negative feelings in kids, and in parents who were put off during their own school days.

But while slaving over algebra and learning times tables by rote can be a turn-off for children, taking maths outside the classroom can ignite a newfound enthusiasm for the subject – and there are lots of great ways you can embrace outdoor maths at home, too.

Why take maths outdoors?

‘Taking maths outside isn’t just about making the subject fun. It also helps children master the very basics of the subject,’ says teacher and educational consultant Juliet Robertson, author of Messy Maths: A Playful, Outdoor Approach for Early Years (Independent Thinking Press, £18.99).

‘Research has found that there are several key things that children need in order to get to grips with maths, and these can all be found outside,’ Juliet explains.

These are:

  • Access to concrete materials. ‘Children need objects they can feel, move around and do things to, so that mathematical concepts aren’t just abstract,’ Juliet says. ‘For example, they can’t understand what a right angle is unless they’ve seen and felt one.’ Natural treasures like sticks, stones and seed pods are brilliant manipulative materials that can be used for counting, measuring, comparing and more.
  • A pictorial understanding. ‘This involves being able to represent concepts through drawing pictures, diagrams, charts and so on,’ Juliet says. ‘Being outside means children get to experience things in 3D and from all angles, which helps their pictorial representation and the spatial imagery needed for geometry.’
  • An understanding of the language and symbols of maths, including concepts like more, fewer, bigger, smaller, longer, shorter, and so on. ‘Climbing a tree and looking down gives children an understanding of scale, for example, and they’re more confident using mathematical language if they have something interesting to talk about,’ Juliet says.

Learning maths in an outdoor environment also makes the subject real and relevant to children. For instance, shifting tree stumps around can provide a lesson in understanding weight that’s far more meaningful than weighing plastic cubes in the classroom.

Outdoor maths in schools

The growth of the Forest School concept means that an increasing number of schools are embracing outdoor learning. It’s particularly popular in Early Years classes, but can be extended further up the school, too.

‘Sometimes we might go outdoors to collect data then do the number-crunching inside; or we might start in the classroom looking at right angles then go outside to see if they exist in nature,’ Juliet says.

‘A flexible approach is best, but you can find evidence outside for every primary school maths experience and outcome.’

10 ways to practise maths skills outdoors

Whether or not outdoor learning is part of your child’s school day, there are many activities you can do at home to make maths more real and exciting.

1. How big/small/deep?

‘Take a metre piece of string stick outside and use it to check and measure the things you come across,’ Juliet suggests.

2. Flowerpot percussion

Collect a number of flowerpots of different shapes and sizes, and turn them upside down for your child to use as drums. Do the bigger pots produce a different sound?

3. How many steps?

‘Get your child to estimate distances using large steps,’ Juliet suggests. ‘Set them challenges, like, “How many steps is it to the next lamp post?” Estimate then check, and see how they become more accurate with practice.’

4. Ball bouncing patterns

A good activity for kids who love sports. Take a ball outside and challenge your child to copy a pattern that you make up, such as ‘bounce, roll, throw.’ Say the instructions out loud. Can your child come up with their own pattern for you to copy?

5. Times tables on foot

‘Practise times tables by taking steps,’ Juliet says. ‘If you’re learning the four times table, get them to count their steps in a whisper – “one, two, three” – and then say “FOUR” out loud. Carry on, saying “five, six, seven, EIGHT” and so on: a change from practising by rote.’

6. 3D dens

Use large sticks or broom handles lashed together with rope to create the frame of a den in a variety of 3D shapes, like cube, cuboid, square-based and triangular pyramids. Talk about the properties as you’re building, and let your child help using a variety of different materials.

7. Read a map

‘Rather than always using the satnav, take the time to go exploring using an Ordnance Survey map: a really helpful way to learn about movement and direction,’ Juliet says. ‘Talking about compass points and angles will help children when they’re learning about angles and bearings.’

8. Find five

Draw a line on the ground using chalk, and arrange five natural objects (a stone, a leaf, a pine cone, etc.) on one side of the line. Your child has to find five matching objects and copy your layout as a mirror image on the other side of the line: a good lesson in symmetry.

9. Money matters

‘When the Tooth Fairy comes, leave your child’s money in 2p and 5p coins,’ Juliet suggests. ‘Get them to sort the coins into groups or count them out, then go to the shops to spend them.’

10. Number hunt

When you’re outside, look for numbers that occur in the environment, for example on front doors and road signs. What’s the biggest number your child can find, and the smallest? Can they find a number in an unexpected place? Take photos of numbers then try to put them in order – going forwards or backwards – at home.