I believe numeracy is one of the easiest subjects to bring outside on 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!
Here are eight ways to support emerging maths and numeracy concepts in early childhood education:
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.
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.
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.