With the weather warming, families are looking forward to getting outside and active again. Nature walks are a great, gentle way to get everyone moving after a long cold winter. Did you know these very same hikes around local trails and neighbourhoods are a great way to practice math? According to math trail experts like Ron Lancaster, professor emeritus in mathematics education at the University of Toronto’s OISE, taking a nature walk every season is a unique way to connect math to daily life. Subjects like science, math and art are found all around us in the natural world, all you must do is look!
Here are some fun, age appropriate ways to get a little extra math practice and appreciation in this spring with the help of mother nature.
For Preschoolers and Early Grades
Young learners can truly benefit from exploring outdoors, and it does not have to be complicated. Many math educators recommend starting with scavenger hunts and tally-taking.
How many different shapes can you find on a walk? Which words and letters of the alphabet do you see along the way? For the littlest scavengers, you can even paint an egg carton with different colours and use it to let children collect “samples” of every different color they find (under parental supervision, of course)!
Taking tally is a great way to get in simple counting exercises, and a clipboard and a pencil can even make it fun! Make a list of different items you’re likely to see: birds, flowers, signposts, and even other people.
For Elementary and Middle School Students
Observation and patience are great skills for elementary students to pick up, and an important part of learning to recognize how math integrates into the natural spaces we live in.
The Spring Equinox just passed on March 20, and now days will be getting longer. How much longer every day? If you can find a place where you can see the sun set, you can take your child to watch as the sun gradually moves a little further towards the north every day, stopping its northward movement when we reach the summer solstice. You can check weather apps to get sunrise and sunset times and keep a log on how much longer days are getting every day, too!
Patterns are everywhere in nature, and there are some very particular patterns that we tend to see over and over, including symmetry, branching, spirals, waves, bubbles, tessellations, cracks, and spots and stripes. What’s truly amazing is that many of these formations can be mathematically modeled as they happen in nature! For earlier grades, it’s enough to be able to find and recognize these patterns for what they are.
Some plants and animals even have patterns that are unique to themselves. Can you observe and identify them? For instance, we humans tend to be bilaterally symmetrical (that means if you drew a line through our middles, we’d be similar on left and right sides), with 5 digits on each limb. What patterns can you find in a rosebush or an insect?
Taking it to the Next Level with Secondary Students
Your tween or teenager might up the ante by asking how the math that they are learning at school fits in the natural world. Fortunately, you can have an answer at the ready, and it doesn’t have to be just ‘physics.’
We recommend picking up the super interesting read A Mathematical Nature Walk by John A. Adam. Applied on your walks, it might just be the most fun math challenge you and your older children ever have taken. Imagine weighing a pumpkin by looking at it, the height of a tree by its shadow, understanding how fast rain is traveling when it lands on you, and how watching a boat’s wake proves that the earth is round. In short, it’ll give formula to the pattern recognition they may have noticed around them.
The math involved is mostly arithmetic, algebra, and a little bit of precalculus. You can win over your family’s skeptics by telling them that math proves King Kong couldn’t exist, but they’ll have to do math to see how.
We hope you enjoy these outdoor math exercises for students of all ages. Happy trails to you and your family!