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
- 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.
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.
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.
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: