Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing – Forest-School Inspired Math Activities for Preschoolers

Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing - Forest-School Inspired Math Activities for Preschoolers. Take STEM outside with this fun learning activity for preschool and beyond. From Rain or Shine Mamma.

Published on September 23rd, 2014 Updated on January 10th, 2023 By Linda McGurk

When you think of math activities for preschoolers your mind might automatically jump to math problems like 1+1 or counting to 10, but math is much more than that. Math, especially in the early years, is about abstract thinking, sorting, comparing, categorizing and learning basic math vocabulary. This outdoor, forest-school inspired math activity is a perfect way to introduce math concepts in a way that is developmentally appropriate.

The math activities for preschoolers in this post are inspired by the Swedish book Play and Learn Mathematics Outdoors, and revolve around collecting items in nature. Children are natural collectors and for this reason we often bring along a basket or tote bag on our walks in the woods. Bird feathers, fallen leaves, sticks, flowers, acorns and other tree nuts often end up in the bag, as well as the rare pine cone or a uniquely shaped rock. This innate desire to collect items in nature can be the starting point for many outdoor learning activities.

Sorting, comparing and categorizing – forest-school inspired math activities for preschoolers and kindergartners

Age: Preschool – Kindergarten

Time: 30 min – 2 hours

Materials:

  • Large white sheet
  • Tote bag or basket for collecting items
  • Natural items such as pine cones, leaves, rocks, tree nuts etc.

Place: Any natural area.

How to do it:

Take your child to a natural area, and bring along the sheet and basket/tote bag. Encourage him or her to pick a variety of things, since you’ll need them for the math activity later. If this is your first time collecting items in nature, make sure to talk about which items are OK to pick, i.e. that you only take things that are already on the ground, so your child is not ripping leaves, branches or bark from the trees.

DIY Forest School: Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing. Rain or Shine Mamma

Once you have a wide range of items, pick a place to spread out the sheet and pour everything out of the bag. The white sheet makes it easier to see everything and also gives you something to sit on.

DIY Forest School: Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing. Rain or Shine Mamma

A good exercise to start with is basic sorting, and to initiate it you may ask questions like: “Are some of the items similar to each other?”, “How are they similar?” and “Which ones do you think should be in the same pile?” My daughter caught on quickly and made four groups of items: Sticks, bark, nuts and leaves. Somehow a random bird feather ended up in the pile with leaves and when I quizzed her about it she was adamant that it stay. “Why?” I asked, puzzled, since she clearly knew it wasn’t a leaf. “Because it will be lonely if it’s by itself,” she explained. Fair enough. The feather stayed.

Next, choose one of the piles, for example the sticks, and ask your child to sort the items by length. If some of them are really similar in length, you might want to show your child how to stand them up next to each other for a more accurate comparison. This is also a good opportunity to work on some math words: long, longer, longest, short, shorter, shortest, tall, taller, tallest, thick, thicker, thickest, thin, thinner, thinnest.

DIY Forest School: Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing. Rain or Shine Mamma

My daughter then counted the leaves and talked about which trees they came from, and what color they were. We also compared size: big, bigger, biggest, small, smaller, smallest.

We also took a closer look at the tree nuts, and I asked my daughter to divide them into subcategories for each different type of nut. We ended up with four piles: acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and a third, unidentified type of nut. She counted each pile and we worked on more math words: many, more, most, few, fewer, fewest.

Variations: You can make these exercises more challenging depending on your child’s age and developmental stage. For example, use a timer and let your child compete against the clock while sorting the sticks, or do it while using a blindfold. You can also use the items as counters and make math problems. The opportunities are virtually endless with this type of open-ended activity!

Check out the previous posts in this series for more fabulous outdoor learning ideas for preschool and beyond:

Counting to 10 with Nature

Exploring Small Worlds

Outdoor Memory Game
Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing - Forest-School Inspired Math Activities for Preschoolers. Take STEM outside with this fun learning activity for preschool and beyond. From Rain or Shine Mamma.

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8 thoughts on “Sorting, Comparing and Categorizing – Forest-School Inspired Math Activities for Preschoolers

  1. Kierna says:

    Love this post so much – so simple & yet look at all the learning going on! Thanks so much for this amazing series & for linking them up to the Outdoor Play Party xx

  2. Nicky at Bee and the Bluebells says:

    I absolutely love these ideas – can’t wait for the leaves to start falling over here in England so we can start gathering and sorting! I love your whole blog, too. Such a wonderful resource – I’m very glad to have found you as we write about similar things and I agree with your outlook on life!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      I’m glad you found me too, Nicky! I checked out your blog and really liked it too – as you noted I think we have a lot in common. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  3. WildFamilyFun says:

    A brilliant post, such simple but wonderful ideas. Outdoor adventures can be used in so many different ways and have such a variety of postivite outcomes.
    Thank you for sharing, its given me so many things to think about in work and activities coming up with the children.

  4. Magi says:

    This is such a great series!! I plan to use some of these lesson plans with my homeschool and my Camp Fire USA group. Thanks for this great resource!

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