06 July, 2021 | Posted by Marguerita Magennis

Learning Numeracy the Natural Way: Maths Outdoors in Early Childhood

Early Childhood Education STEM outdoors

Bringing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) into Early Childhood Education through numeracy doesn’t have to be tedious and boring, or for that matter limited to the indoors.

There is much more to the emerging concepts of numeracy than learning how to count, or recognising the written number or doing sums.

If you stop for a minute and consider the many creative, adventurous, and sometimes messy ways children begin to explore and use their senses to develop numeracy concepts, you will be surprised by the different everyday, natural ways these concepts crop up in our surrounding environments.

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Very often in Ireland, we hear practitioners talking about forest schools and the outdoor environment, however, I often wonder whether the true potential is being utilised and whether there is a clear understanding of what children draw from this rich, hidden curriculum; or for that matter, if it is fully respected in terms of value and importance when supporting early emerging concepts such as numeracy.

Forest schools and outdoor learning environments aim to move away from traditional indoor approaches while taking the structure out of planning and learning.

However it is important to remember, that by moving the indoors into the outdoors, we are not truly reflecting the philosophies of nature and the natural learning environment as was intended by underpinning Pioneers such as Froebel and Steiner.

Even though we use terms like child-led and play-based, these traditional or habitual learning environments often lead to a stifling and somewhat suffocating experience of learning, where the true rich potential of early learning is lost for some children.

Forest schools and outdoor learning place the child at the centre of the learning experience, making for a rich and fruitful learning experience where emerging concepts evolve and transpire naturally, while children explore and investigate (Piaget).

Where they solve problems independently without judgement, and where the child can learn to experience failure and success simultaneously, recalling and revisiting past experiences to move successfully onto the next level (Vygotsky); with or without the adults help.

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But How Do We Know They Are Learning?

The majority of children really enjoy being outside. They enjoy exploring, rambling freely, discovering new and interesting things.

But – I hear people saying! If we don’t plan activities, how do we know they are learning?

Part of this problem, I believe, arises from the adult’s expectation of what children learn and how they learn, and often we expect to see tangible evidence to prove that we have achieved something during that day; that we have managed to teach this child something new.

There is an expectation that children will conform to a particular environment, engage with activities which the adult deems to reinforce learning and promote new and emerging concepts.

However, as Piaget suggests, children learn in stages and, when given the right environment to explore and investigate, they experience trial and error.

They master skills, such as critical thinking, evaluation, problem-solving, and with this, the concepts needed to engage with emergent numeracy at this very early age.

Children from as young as 18 months and even younger; will explore their environment, solving problems independently if they are left to do so.

Therefore the forest school, this natural environment, brings with it all the natural resources needed for children to develop concepts of numeracy and mathematics in a fun and nonjudgemental way, at their own pace, and in a child-led way.

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Maths Outside - All Around Us

Personally, I believe numeracy is one of the easiest subjects to bring outside on these warm summer days, but actually in any season because each season will bring its own wide variety of emergent numeracy concepts for our younger members of society.

Practitioners and parents, need to avail of naturally occurring events to raise awareness of numeracy concepts, and promote extended learning by knowing how to identify outdoor maths experiences.

Learning that emerges naturally from our every day experiences, is my favourite type of learning!

When I think back to my own childhood experiences, I recall the natural environment which was often our only resource.

The child’s imagination and innate need to investigate and willingness to explore is what made it work.

The lack of inhibition when a younger child will ask a question if they are uncertain, unlike older children who perhaps worry about what others will think, so as practitioners, we should utilise these early stages when children yearn to learn.

This is what makes the outdoors an ideal learning environment, much more enriching and full of problems to be solved and explored.

There is no need to bring the indoors outdoors, to sit at tables outside, with lego, jigsaws, sandpits and water trays, children don’t need toys!

They should engage with what is naturally available to them – bugs, leaves, twigs, stones etc. This is what stimulated and supported my play and learning, so why not today’s children.

Unfortunately in today’s early years environments, there is sometimes a misunderstanding about what is meant by teaching and expanding emerging concepts in the outdoors, it doesn’t mean bring the indoor materials with you into the natural environment, but rather engage with the resources which are readily available if we would only explore and allow learning to emerge spontaneously, developing new and valuable concepts with discussion and play.

For the practitioner, well that means we need to be on top form, able to recognise learning opportunities and step in immediately we note a questioning glance, or uncertainty, see an opportunity to extend learning and develop those ever evolving concepts of early maths.

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Supporting Emerging Numeracy Concepts in the Outdoors

Measurement – Exploring and finding small objects, flowers, twigs, pebbles, to compare with larger plants and flowers or even trees and logs. Encouraging children to consider similarities and differences, lining up objects, and using our senses to explore what is found.

Size and Shape – Searching for seeds, stones and objects and comparing the size and shape. Considering how heavy or light objects are, and providing children with a variety of natural objects to explore and investigate. Encouraging children to explore by touching and lifting objects to open up conversations and introducing new concepts of maths.

Chopped tree stumps, smaller logs and twigs, building a den, and exploring heavy and light. Discussing and exploring which logs can be moved and which cannot, and why? All encouraging critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Collecting and Sorting – Using natural objects like leaves and flowers to identify symmetry and similarity. Exploring how many sides there are, introducing the concept of number, how many points, how many petals etc. Ordering objects to match those of similar size and shape. All useful and important concept for emerging numeracy.

Colour – Another important concept in emergent numeracy which also links into sorting and categorising, helping to develop critical thinking skills by asking questions relating to similarities in colour, and dipping into science when we get opportunities to explore the seasonal changes as the colours of leaves, flowers and surroundings change.

Full and Empty – Particularly on rainy days in Ireland, regardless of the season, we should encourage children to investigate puddles in the soil, or the indent of a hollowed log retaining water, leaves cupping droplets, or the naturally emerging streams between stones and rocks, as the rainfall pushes the loose clay to the side. Promoting conversations about how much rainfall, how heavy it was, is there more or less, which is fuller emptier. Or as the sun comes out to dry up the remnants of the showers, how the water evaporates, so puddles disappear linking to science as well as emergent numeracy experiences.

Weight - Introducing the concept of weight, along with problem solving and risk, as children climb trees and determine which branch looks stronger, which is wider, or thinner, which will hold their weight and which won’t.. [all under supervision of course], but still supporting the emergent concepts of numeracy in the outdoors.

Movement and Speed – The muddier the better! Introducing the concept of movement, speed, gravity to young children. How long does it take to get to the bottom when sliding down the slippery slope, why does one child get there faster than another, discussing size, weight and how this impacts on the speed [keeping the discussion relevant to the age of the children], and exploring new emerging concepts of numeracy during naturally occurring play.

Problem Solving – Critical thinking and problem solving as children explore wider and narrower. Building a tower from pebbles or twigs and logs, determining the most suitable order, so the tower is stable and won’t topple over. Which is bigger, heavier, which should go on the bottom, questioning and exploring what happens when the larger one is placed at the top. And often leading to failure, but in a fun and safe environment, so the child is willing to try again and again until they resolve the problem, and another emerging concept of early numeracy is reinforced.

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The Practitioner's Role

So what is the Practitioners role in all of this? I would say one of the co-explorer and investigator, modelling and reinforcing, encouraging questions; but also to ask questions and enhance and extend the child’s experience.

To motivate children to think independently, to wonder, and explore and scrutinise.

The practitioner needs to be situated in the moment, and engage with every opportunity that emerges to enhance concepts that might well have been introduced initially indoors, but which now are evolving and being expanded in the natural environment of our outdoor spaces.

Sandseter (2021) suggests that children become more creative in the outdoor environment, when given the freedom to be innovative, flexible and, adaptable in their own learning.

Children learn to engage with risk and manage problem-solving.

And we see what I call logical maths connectors when we encourage children to engage with these open exploratory activities, less structured but developing emerging concepts of early numeracy at their own level and pace.

Through utilising these natural outdoor spaces, we begin to celebrate the uniqueness that can be gained from collecting, sorting, measuring, and moving objects.

Things we do every day, but don’t necessarily connect with early emerging numerical concepts.

Further Reading:

Dowdell, K., and Gray, T. (2011) Nature and its influence on children’s outdoor play, in Australian journal of outdoor Education, 15(2): 24-35.

O’Brien, L., and Murray, R. (2007) Forest School and its impacts on young children: Case Studies in Britain, in Science Direct, 6: 249- 265.

O’Brien, L. (2009) Learning outdoors, The forest School Approach, in Education 3-13,37: 1, 45-60.

About The Author

Marguerita Magennis Ph.D. MA. BA Hons, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read more on her blog Dr M's Thoughts here.

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