Head to the Playground to Learn Math!

Remember field trips? Remember how much fun they were?

Remember how much you learned?

You were learning, you know. When students leave the classroom, they start to see the connections between what they see in their textbooks and what can be found in the real world. They begin to understand that what they learn in the classroom can help them solve real problems.

That’s why getting outdoors is so important. Here at No Fault, we’re always talking about the importance of outdoor play. On the playground, outdoor play balances the education that goes on in the classroom. But outdoor learning is important, too! As we will see, a “place-based” learning experience is a new lens through which students see and understand the world.

Today we’re going to talk about how learning can take place outdoors and how playtime isn’t the only activity that can happen at recess. In fact, the playground (or nearly any outdoors area) can be used to “discover” mathematics and other academic subjects rather than being an “escape” from them!

Be Aware of Different Learning Styles

It all starts with understanding that children are all different. Many young students are “nontraditional learners;” for them, being outside provides an opportunity to engage through physical movement. Being outside also encourages independence and builds confidence. This growth is part of physical fitness, sure, but did you know that it’s also a part of intellectual development?

Effective teaching requires different ways of presenting concepts and skills to help students internalize new learning and retain knowledge. Playgrounds (and the great outdoors in general, even if we’re just talking about city streets) can create meaningful opportunities to learn or reinforce concepts and skills taught in the classroom. 

Even youngsters who normally do well in the classroom find that spending time outside offers a fun change of pace from a classroom-based, teacher-directed, textbook-centered experience. If you are a teacher and you incorporate outdoor learning, you may find that some children who never responded in a traditional classroom will do very well outside. For these boys and girls, something “clicks” and they start to grasp the concepts from their textbooks. 

Taking Math Outside

Math. Just the word itself is enough to make some of us nervous! When you think about learning mathematics, you usually picture classrooms, desks and thick, intimidating books, right?

Natural outdoor settings hold endless possibilities for learning about math. That’s why early childhood educators are starting to teach their students about numbers and spatial relationships in natural outdoor settings.

One organization in New York called UrbanMathTrails, a math education consultancy, is taking mathematics out of the textbooks and inspiring children to discover math in the environment around them.

Jan Cohen is the founder. She says parks and other natural habitats, playgrounds, zoos, and neighborhoods have “kinesthetic, naturalist and spatial elements” that support “mathematical thinking” and that gets children excited about math. She says her “learning outdoors” approach is great at cultivating problem-solving skills, creativity, and decision-making. 

This approach encourages students to use spatial awareness to solve problems. For example, basketball courts, running tracks and play equipment can be creatively leveraged into engaging lessons about numbers and operations, measurement and data, geometry, ratios and proportions, and even algebraic thinking.

Even walking around the school building itself offers opportunities for measurement activities using both non-standard (hand span, arm span, step length) and standard measurement units (feet and meters). With a tape measure (one that has both inch and centimeter units), you can guide students as they convert lengths, widths, and heights to feet, yards and meters, practicing division to solve application problems. You can teach children how to convert units of measurement within and between the metric system and the U.S. measurement system. 

Math Problems Outdoors

In addition to the example above, here are a few math activities that can be taken outdoors.

  • Explore the relationship between perimeter and area. 
  • Compare lengths of lanes in a running track to determine the correct starting position in each lane to ensure that all competitors run the same distance.
  • Calculate slopes. By learning how to measure a change in elevation, students are exposed to another concept in engineering.
  • Measure heights using corresponding shadows. 
  • Identify and measure different types of angles (acute, obtuse, right or straight)
  • Practice using geometric terms. When students are challenged to communicate math orally, their understanding of concepts and skills improve.

Tools to Get Started

Activating the outdoors for math learning requires very few materials. Sidewalk chalk, measuring tapes, string, clipboards and pencils are enough to get started. 

Have a plan when you head outdoors. Don’t just wander around! Know what concepts you’ll be teaching.

Group the students for specific activities. Students can learn to work with a partner or in a team. Student interaction with one another builds observation skills and enables students to retain information through experience and teamwork. 

In many ways, the playground facilitates cooperative learning.  It builds an appreciation of the outdoors for lifelong learning and enjoyment, adds variety and fun to the math curriculum and experience. It should come as no surprise that playgrounds can also reinforce the math skills learned in class.