Deanna Pecaski McLennan, Ph.D., is a full-day kindergarten teacher based in Ontario, Canada and the author of the new book Joyful Math: Invitations to Play and Explore in the Early Childhood Classroom and was recently awarded the 2020 Prime Minister Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM.
It was a beautiful autumn day and the children were busy in the mud kitchen. Embracing the roles they had assigned themselves in their imaginative play they manipulated natural materials and moved in character.
“I’m home from the grocery store!” Jaxon walked over and placed a large paper bag filled with dried grass and flowers next to the pots positioned on the wooden stove.
“What did you buy?” Daisha asked as she stirred a pot of dirt.
“Lots of healthy, green vegetables. Look! Broccoli, beans, and even celery. Perfect for the stew.”
“Did you get enough? We have all these people coming to dinner!” Daisha gestured to the children scattered around the play yard.
“I think so. I filled the bag.” Jaxon responded.
“Let me see.” Daisha took the bag from Jaxon’s arms and dumped its contents on the stove. “One, two, three…” She counted as she picked up each item and returned them to the bag. “Fifteen! That’s not enough! We have more than fifteen people coming to the party!”
Jaxon frowned as he considered Daisha’s observation.
“Hmm….” He said as he crossed his arms. He was quiet as he thought for a moment. “Oh! I know!” He responded. “What if we break each vegetable in half? Then we can have more to serve!”
“Maybe,” Daisha responded. “Let’s try it and see.”
As an early childhood educator in Ontario’s full-day kindergarten program, I love spending as much time as I can outdoors. Our yard provides many opportunities for big-body play as the children explore their surroundings, appreciate the beauty of nature, and engage in authentic math learning opportunities. On this particular day, I was curious about the inquiry emerging in Jaxon and Daisha’s play. As I listened to their conversation I was surprised at the complexity of their problem solving regarding having enough "food" for the children attending their party and recognized many math questions in their explorations. I took photos of their work and made a mental note to bring some of their questions to our next whole-group meeting: If we had a pretend party how many people might come? How can we be sure that we have enough food for everyone? How will we arrange the many guests around our small tables? And what might we do if we miscalculate how much of something we need?
I expected that many children would be eager to engage in a party role-play the next day, and planned for how to ensure we had additional tools and resources to support their learning, including a kitchen scale, measuring cups and spoons, pretend money, and serving bowls. Young children are usually eager to engage in dramatic role-play outdoors. When educators observe children in these surroundings, they realize that they ask many authentic mathematical questions about the world around them. Responding to and reflecting upon these rich moments of learning honors children as capable mathematicians, and helps educators scaffold and support future math learning opportunities.
Just as children’s questions might be different from one another, our schools’ outdoor spaces are likely to be diverse as well. However, as educators, one of the most powerful ways we can embrace math learning outdoors is to listen deeply to the observations and wonderings of children. There are many ways educators can provide space for children to notice, wonder, and explore outdoor areas through a mathematical lens. Here are some suggestions for how to bring math learning outdoors:
Prepare invitations for children to explore in their play.
These teacher-provided activities encourage children to develop and investigate their own questions through mathematical play. Adding interesting materials to an unexpected area including scales, rulers, building materials, dice, and dominoes entice children to explore and create as they interact with the materials. Specific activities can also be prepared ahead of time (e.g., frames and pattern blocks, measuring sticks). These invitations can be built upon children’s emerging inquiries, and infuse curriculum expectations into children’s play.
Create a Wonder Wagon.
Being prepared to support children’s observations and questions is important for ensuring successful math learning outdoors. Consider creating a Wonder Wagon filled with math tools and materials that can easily be wheeled to any spot in the yard or pulled along by children on community walks. Include items such as clipboards, writing materials, measurement tools, magnifying glasses, sorting bowls, a number line, and laminated ten frames.
Listen and respond to children’s observations and questions about the world around them.
Some of the richest math inquiries are not necessarily planned ahead of time. They spontaneously happen as children observe the natural world through a mathematical lens (e.g., Why are the leaves turning colors? How high can a lady bug fly? Why does a Blue Jay have such large wings?). Once a mathematical problem or question emerges educators can act as guides, supporting and scaffolding the inquiry for as long as the children are interested.
Collect natural loose parts each season.
Children love treasures from nature, including stones, shells, leaves, flowers, and feathers. They naturally classify, sort, and count what they collect (e.g., size, color, shape, smell, texture). Children can store loose parts in baskets to be used as play props during our outdoor time. These materials supplement classroom resources, beautify the space, and can be used by children for a variety of purposes. Curating collections of natural items is an easy and cost-effective way to integrate math into outdoor play, and to bring parts of the outside world into the classroom space.
Enhance the outdoor space you have.
Creating outdoor math opportunities doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Small changes can inspire children’s math experiences outdoors. Consider using recycled and donated objects to inspire children’s play. Adding simple sensory areas can nurture children’s development and inspire their play with investigation (e.g., sand box, water bins). If your space is limited, seek nearby substitutes instead, including going on a weekly community walk, visiting a nearby green space, taking the subway to a nearby park, or finding a nature trail. Field trips to the pumpkin patch, sugar bush, or educational farm can also spark rich mathematical investigations.
Exploring authentic math in the outdoors can spark joy for educators and children. Outdoor experiences encourage children to become protectors of the natural world as they learn beyond the walls of the classroom!
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