Nature + Exploration = Boundless Mathematics Learning

This is the fifth in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing With Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.

DSC_0076Natural outdoor classrooms provide engaging opportunities for children to develop mathematical ideas through frequent hands-on investigations. The variety of loose parts encourage children to find and create patterns, explore the concepts of numbers and simple equations, and overall to “mathematize” their thinking. With support from intentional and informed adults, children’s “mathematized” thinking can blossom from the earliest months of life through the elementary school years.

DSC_0126Many anecdotes shared by educators from certified Nature Explore Classrooms reference the mathematical skills children had demonstrated, such as counting, measuring and estimating. While these skills are certainly important, it’s also important to realize how essential it is for children to develop intuitive and authentic understandings of mathematical processes. These more complex ways of thinking include using logical reasoning to solve problems, communicating mathematical ideas, and connecting mathematical concepts to everyday life.

Here are a handful of stories that illustrate beautifully the development of these skills. At times the accounts may seem deceptively simple, but if you look deeply you’ll see that valuable, foundational mathematical thinking is developing.

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“I saw Derek playing with a pile of leaves and asked him about them. He explained that he had collected them from underneath a nearby tree. I asked about his plan for the leaves and he told me they were just for looking at, but then described their size: “There are some big ones—like this one. It’s bigger than those, it’s the biggest.” Next, he pointed to others, noting their relative size and moving them into position from smallest to largest. When I asked him to tell me about what he’d done, he counted 27 leaves in a line. I told him I noticed that not only had he counted 27 leaves, but also pointed out to him that he had lined them up in order by their size.” —Holly Murdoch, Preschool Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs

The child-initiated task in this story—assembling leaves—was “mathematized” by the scaffolding of the teacher, who helped shape her student’s experience and reinforce his thinking.

The Teeter-Totter

“George and Xavier, four years old, learned about cooperation, balance and coordination as they played on a natural teeter-totter they made in the Messy Materials area. Throughout the process of creating this structure, children also measured the different materials, made a poster noting their length, and learned the word circumference.” —Elena Otto, Assistant Director, Kids and Company Childcare, Carson, CA

Teachers provided the time needed to create this elaborate structure, and they helped scaffold children’s mathematical thinking through the experience. All of this math learning took place while the children were also doing the physical labor of lifting and moving the logs and using the social skills necessary to collaborate successfully.


 Selling Gourds

“In the fall, kindergarteners were using many areas of the outdoor classroom in unstructured exploration when I heard students “selling” gourds and mini pumpkins…. Soon students were flocking to the “store” to buy, and imaginary money came out of pockets. There was even haggling over prices, with certain items going for a premium based on the size, shape, color and weight of the gourds. One vendor confided in me that he bought the gourd for fifty cents but was selling it for a dollar. The secret mark-ups of the selling group were the source of much delight for them.” —Julia Gilreath, Elementary Art Specialist Gomez Heritage Elementary School, Omaha, NE

Children engage in grocery store play indoors and out. This story is special because the variety of materials outdoors seemed to spur more excited dramatic play, creative pricing and flexible thinking than is often seen indoors. Math is integrated throughout this activity.

“Mathematized” thinking abounds in Nature Explore Classrooms. Find many more inspiring stories that highlight mathematical skill development—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— in the Growing With Nature book.