As the weather improves and opportunities for being out of doors for most of the day increase, it is time for practitioners in early years settings to consider the many different ways in which children’s mathematical development can be enhanced by ‘taking maths outdoors’

Opportunities for developing mathematical skills occur in all the different play opportunities children experience in an early years setting. Outdoor play and games often require the knowledge, skills and understanding found in this area of learning. For example:

  • giant outdoor dominoes and lotto encourage number recognition and counting
  • a range of construction materials can foster an understanding of shape, space and measures as well as counting and sorting
  • natural materials can be ordered in size, sorted by size or used for counting
  • role play opportunities, such as a garden centre, garage or car wash, encourage transactional play involving buying and selling, recognising numbers and quantities and a developing understanding of capacity and measurement
  • traditional games such as skipping and hide and seek involve number recognition and counting as well as measuring time
  • all types of races involve an understanding of distance, time and 1st, 2nd and 3rd
  • team games such as football and soft cricket foster an awareness of space and direction as well as encouraging children to play together co-operatively.

The outdoor environment is a perfect place for enjoying singing and movement with the very youngest children. Many nursery rhymes and action songs are about numbers and counting and most of them can be enjoyed by children throughout the early years as they will enjoy repeating well-known words. There is a strong connection between the order, timing, beat and rhythm of music and aspects of mathematics such as counting, sequencing and understanding time and order. Being outdoors gives you the space and freedom to make the most of singing and acting out rhymes.

  • Many nursery rhymes are counting rhymes: ‘One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive’, ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’;
  • ‘Five currant buns in the baker’s shop’ and ‘Ten green bottles’ involve an understanding of taking away and adding on
  • Action rhymes such as ‘Two little dickie birds’ ‘Five little ducks went swimming one day’, ‘Five green speckled frogs’ involve counting backwards and forwards
  • ‘Incy Wincy Spider’ and ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ involve the use positional language such as up and down as well as numbers.

Practical ideas
With babies:

  • Choose some action rhymes to sing out of doors – ‘Round and round the garden, like a Teddy Bear’ and ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’, work well.
  • As you play with the babies in the outdoor environment use every opportunity to count fingers, toes and other parts of the body and face. Say ‘(Name) has one nose and two eyes and two ears.’
  • Have crawling races with the babies in your outdoor area or at the local park.
  • With toddlers:
  • Play ‘There were 10 in the bed’ with a group of toddlers, rolling over on the ground when you come to the line ‘and the little one said “roll over”.’
  • Collect together as many toy animals as you can find and act out the song ‘The animals went in two by two.’ If you have a toy ark and animals take them out into your outdoor area.
  • Make some props to use out of doors to go with the action rhymes ‘Two little dickie birds’, ‘Five little ducks’, ‘Five currant buns’, ‘Five fat sausages sizzling in the pan’. Use two paper birds attached to your fingers, five plastic ducks, cardboard sausages or pictures cut out of magazines and currant buns made out of Playdough or real ones! Try using an outdoor water tray when you act out ‘Five little ducks.’

With three-to-five-year-olds:

  • Set up role play areas outdoors which are equipped to develop mathematical skills – include things for counting, numbers, coins, measuring equipment and mark making equipment to encourage symbolic representation.
  • Provide materials for building, including blocks of different sizes, planks, reclaimed materials, 3-D shapes and boxes. Make measuring equipment and mark making tools available to facilitate problem-solving activities.
  • Use collections of pebbles, leaves, twigs or conkers for counting, sorting, ordering and classifying
  • Think about the games you played as a child – for example, play ‘What time is it Mr Wolf?’ or hopscotch in the outdoor area or at the local park.

Links with Ofsted SEF: Section 3, 4b, 4d, 4e, 4f

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update