Math in Nature
It’s April, and spring has finally come to the North Carolina mountains, where I live. And spring always makes me think of math.
Nature is the original mathematician, and she offers lots of fun activities you can do with your child to reinforce math skills and introduce new math concepts. Here are some of my favorite outdoor math activities. So take a walk in the woods, along a stream, or in the park. Take along a notepad, a pencil (or, better yet, a few colored pencils), a marker, a ruler, a tape measure, and a small basket with a handle.
As you try different activities, make a mental note of the ones that capture your child’s attention the most. Also, don’t spend more than a few minutes on any one activity. This should be fun and exciting, not rote or boring.
Ask young children to gather a handful of small rocks, sticks, flowers, or leaves, and then count them. Little ones just love to collect things, even pebbles! Also help them to count the birds or butterflies they see on the way, and count the petals on a single flower. Let her draw some of the objects or critters in her notepad to make it even more fun.
Addition and Subtraction
Use the collected objects to practice adding and subtracting. Quiz your child by making up problems to solve using the objects, or ask her to quiz you. (Kids love being the teacher!)
Begin by separating the objects into groups of 2, and practice counting by twos. Then move on to 3s, 4s, and so on.
Start by setting up a group of 4 objects. Then divide them into 2 groups of 2. Talk about the fraction of objects that are in each group (both 1/2). Do the same with groups of 3 and 1 (3/4 and 1/4). Then move on to fractions related to a total of 5, or 6, or 8. This is also great for explaining equivalent fractions, e.g. 2/4 = 1/2.
Multiplication and Division
Start with 2 groups of objects with 2 in each group. Show that 2×2 = 4, and that it is equivalent to 2+2 = 4. Then move on to 2 groups of 3 objects each, and show that 2×3 = 6 is the same as 3+3 = 6.
Then turn it around, starting with a group of 4 and dividing them into 2 groups to talk about dividing 4 by 2. Move on to higher numbers.
Ask your kids to find as many examples of symmetry as they can. The most common type is reflection (or planar) symmetry, as you see in leaves, birds, butterflies, frogs, spiders, and humans. In reflection symmetry, each half of an object is the mirror image of the other.
Then look for rotational symmetry, in which a part of an object is repeated a number of times as you go around in a circle. Examples include flowers and spider webs.
Some flowers, such as the passion flower, have both rotational and reflection symmetry!
Older children will (hopefully) be interested to learn that the number of spirals in one direction and the number in the other are adjacent numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. In this example, there are 8 and 13. The Fibonacci sequence is an infinite set of numbers in which each number is the sum of the preceding two numbers, as follows: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, …
Look for other spirals, such as snail shells.
Look for circles (e.g. the base of an acorn cap), cylinders (e.g., branches and trees), and spheres (e.g., the sun or an oak gall). Let your child use the marker to outline the base of the acorn cap or other shapes she finds. Talk about approximating in the context of the shape of a nut being almost a sphere. Many nuts are better described as spheroids (a sphere that is elongated or flattened). That’s a big word but kids get a kick out of showing off their prowess with unusual words, so give it a try.
Also try to find geometrical shapes in the clouds. After a few minutes of looking at clouds, your creative mind will kick in and you’ll start to see all kinds of shapes.
Use a ruler to practice measuring lengths and perimeters of objects. Use a tape measure to practice measuring circumference (e.g. the distance around the trunk of a tree).
Start a Math Journal
If your child enjoys these activities, think about making or purchasing a dedicated journal in which she can record her discoveries over time. Try to remember to take it with you whenever you go outside. It will highlight the importance of using math in everyday life, and it’ll make her feel special.
See you out there!