Research School Network: Early Years Maths Outdoors Kate Holden, specialist advisory teacher, highlights the importance of combining mathematics and the natural world.

Early Years Maths Outdoors

Kate Holden, specialist advisory teacher, highlights the importance of combining mathematics and the natural world.

by Meols Cop Research School
on the

Kate Holden, Specialist Advisory Teacher, highlights the importance of combining mathematics and the natural world. It raises an important question: how can teachers make use of the outdoor environment to teach mathematics successfully?

When I was four years old, a boy called Sam Jones and I, armed with various items from the home corner, went outside and made a potion that would make us invisible. Our mission? To go in the staff room to spy on the teachers. As we carefully measured the ingredients: a cup of mud; half a cup of grass… and we counted out others: ten daisy petals; three stones… little did we know we were developing our explorations in the world of mathematics. We covered capacity, counting with 1:1 correspondence, mathematical vocabulary such as less, more, half full and full, but more importantly, we had fun. Giggly messy fun, full of sensory joy, with the mud on our faces and hands to prove it. There was something so powerful about that outdoor learning experience that has enabled me to remember it so clearly, thirty-seven years later.

The pioneers of early childhood education, including Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Margaret McMillan, emphasised the fundamental and crucial role that nature and outdoor experiences have in the developmental maturation of human beings (Bilton, 2002; Pether, 2012). The EYFS guidance firmly places a high value on outdoor provision, insisting that children must have daily opportunities to be outdoors (DfE, 2015) which is framed within a set of early learning goals that establish expectations for most children to meet by the end of the Reception year. It sets out standards for learning and provides an entitlement to play-based experiences and ensures children gain outdoor learning experiences from an early age. However, as children move into statutory schooling, their educational experiences are guided by the requirements of the National Curriculum. As the demand for academic attainment appears to increase, opportunities to learn experientially outside become restricted as increasingly teacher-directed lessons focus on prescribed learning outcomes (Waite, 2010).

The recent Education Endowment Foundation document, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1’ offers five recommendations for developing the maths skills of 3 – 7‑year olds. Recommendations include integrating maths into different activities throughout the day to familiarise children with maths language and exploring mathematics through different contexts. It also highlights how manipulatives and representations can be powerful tools for supporting young children to engage with mathematical ideas.

The outdoors itself brings nature’s maths: the beauty of shape, colour, classification, order, symmetry, patterns and quantities. Children naturally use mathematical thinking and learn skills as part of their outdoor experiences. They will count, measure, explore shapes and develop mathematical ideas through their imagination and creative play. It has been argued by researchers such as Pratt, that in order for children to become effective mathematicians they should develop a mathematical disposition’. This can be supported by the execution of maths outdoors, enabling children to develop an awareness that maths is all around them, allowing them to make connections in their learning and experiences.

With 2020 being the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been outdoors more and more. At many times, outdoors was the only way we could meet others. So what better time to reflect back and think about opportunities for early years maths in that cold, crisp, fresh air? What better time to foster experiences and interactions between young children that will embed mathematical learning and memories that will last a lifetime?

Things to Consider as Educators

Learning outdoors is different to learning indoors. Outdoor spaces generally provide more space for physical activity and children will naturally want to explore outdoors using large physical movements. From the outset, the materials that we provide need to be bigger and more physically challenging than indoors. They will also need to be durable and you may wish to consider the interests of the children in the class as these can be powerful motivators.

One principle in developing children’s competencies is Dewey’s children learn from doing” theory (Mooney, 2000). In the outdoor learning environment children are active and interactive participants in their learning processes. Dewey thought that rather than saying the children will enjoy this”, teachers need to be asking questions in order to plan for effective learning. You may wish to consider the following:

How does this expand on what these children already know?
How will this activity help this child grow?
What skills are being developed?
How will this activity help these children know more about their world?
Are your children engaging with mathematical concepts on a large scale?
Is there a high degree of problem solving and collaborative maths?
Do adults get involved, and show the value of mathematics in physical, meaningful contexts?
Does the way that you store your outdoor resources prompt mathematical discussion and embed understanding?

A Few Ideas to get Started

Garden Area

Games with grasses and sticks: how tall, how many different types, counting, exploring the number of triangles it is possible to make with 9 sticks.
Games with flowers and sticks: counting, number of petals, different patterns
Creating shapes and trails by walking through the long grass
Collecting natural objects: how many are there? Sorting and categorising by size and shape
Gardening – Are there enough spades for everyone? (counting). Planting seeds (counting seeds, planting in a row). Leaf shapes. Growing (size, shape). How much water do we need? (estimating). Have they grown and by how much? (measuring)
Scavenger hunts – matching objects found in the garden to outdoor number or shape cards

Digging and Hoisting in the Mud or Sand

Explore depth – How deep is the hole?
Estimating – How many more spades to dig to the bottom?
Time concepts – Can you shovel faster with a small spade or a big spade?
Capacity and Mass – How much is in the bucket? How full is it? Is it heavy or light?
Number – Count how many things are in the bucket

Create obstacle courses and combine this with a story such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt

Directional language (over, under or through)
Positional language (forwards or backwards, on)
Time taken to complete (stop-watch, sand timer)

Water Play

Explore capacity on a larger scale than indoor water play using large buckets, jugs and watering cans (with different rose attachments) of different sizes and depths
Explore how water can be transported through different channels. Include pieces of guttering and tubing of different lengths and sizes alongside crates or water stands to allow children to lift and transport water


Large crates, planks of wood, wooden poles, pegs, tyres, outdoor fabrics (e.g. tarpaulin) and different fastenings will all lead to large construction with lots of learning potential.

Den building – opportunities to explore size, scale, capacity, height, length and estimation. The size and scale of the materials will mean that children will need to often work collaboratively to achieve what they have set out to do. There will be a high degree of problem solving too.
Stacking and balancing objects – how many can you stack before it falls? Take one away – how many are left?
Estimating and measuring how many planks of wood are needed to get from a start point to an end point.

Outdoor Games

Giant games such as Snakes & Ladders (counting, sequencing, number order) and Connect 4 (patterns, problem-solving) provide endless mathematical possibilities
A games area of hoops, balls, skittles, bean bags and other equipment can provide multiple learning opportunities. Placing this area next to a large chalk board will allow your children to create a simple tally to represent and record their games.

These are just a small selection of suggestions for exploring mathematical learning outdoors. You will also find a wealth of activities and ideas in the resources’ section below and on the Creative Star Learning Ltd website, who advocate outdoor learning for children beyond the Early Years.

To conclude, as we continue into 2020 under the current restrictions, children in the Early Years need the outdoors more than ever, not just for their learning but for their well-being and the opportunity to make life-lasting memories and build strong foundations of their learning. In the words of Margaret McMillan, The best classroom and the richest cupboard are roofed only by the sky.”

Kate Holden, Specialist Advisory Teacher

Developing Early Maths Skills Outdoors:

Exploring the fantastic Possibilities of Early Maths Outdoors:

Maths Outdoors – Ideas, Suggestions and Activities from Creative STAR Learning Ltd

Education Endowment Foundation Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1


Bilton, H. and Potron, M. (2010) Outdoor Learning in the Early Years: Management and Innovation. (3rd edn). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Department for Education. (2015) The national curriculum in England key stages 1 and 2 framework document. Available [Online] at:… (Accessed: 16.12.20).

Mooney, C. (2000). Theories of childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky. Minnesota: Red Leaf Press.

Pether, T. (2012) Leadership for embedding outdoor learning within the primary curriculum. Available [Online] at:… (Accessed: 16.12.20).

Waite, S. (2009) Outdoor learning for children aged 2 – 11: perceived barriers, potential solutions. In: Conference Proceedings for International Outdoor Education Research Conference, La Trobe University, Beechworth, Australia, 15 – 18 April 2009. Available [Online] at:… (Accessed: 16.12.20)

Wisbey, M (2015) Maths in the Great Outdoors. Montessori International Issue 117 [online]. Available at

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