Nature is Mathematical: Expanding Kids’ Minds with an Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor Classroom

The great outdoors is rich with opportunities for math learning that can interest and engage children in real-life problem-solving. Math is a universal language, and the foundations of mathematics give us the tools to ask more complicated questions about the world around us. In grades one and two, children learn the mathematical concepts of addition and subtraction; number sense; and measurements and data collection, such as measuring items with a ruler, comparing which is smaller/larger, and using geometry to identify and understand two-dimensional versus three-dimensional shapes. 

As our foundational understanding of math grows while we expand on the basic concepts of BEDMAS and polynomials, the complexity of our cognition and thought generation also evolves. We move from asking simplistic questions about shapes and numbers to philosophical ones about the mind and humankind. However, this process of mind expansion begins young, starting with the ABCs and 1, 2, 3s. Nurturing educational basics creates the fertile ground for complex thought to grow. Nature provides vast and various workspaces to practice these rudimentary math skills, utilizing space and elements just waiting to be discovered and explored. Here are some tips and exercises you can use to help children activate their mathematical minds.

Colour & Shape

Lessons on colors and shapes are among the first learned in Kindergarten, which can be extrapolated to the outdoor classroom. The basic shapes are the two-dimensional (2D) circle, triangle, and square; and their geometric three-dimensional (3D) counterparts, the sphere, prism, and cube. Have kids explore their “shape space” and see which they can find. Can they find all six of these 2D and 3D shapes? Did they find a group of items that make a shape when put together? Picking a favourite shape or item, such as a rock or leaf, get them to find as many of that item as they can and arrange them according to size or colour gradient. This teaches the skill of comparison and organization and is the basis for making a mathematical series (analgebraic concept). Can they find an object that is a grouping or combination of shapes? If so, have them break that object down into its separate shapes and have them draw the object by using the grouping of shapes as their foundation—this is a drawing technique used to ensure proper scale and arrangement. 


The ability to see groupings of repetitive shapes is the basis of pattern recognition—another fundamental math skill. Patterns are present everywhere in nature, from the changing of seasons to the concentric growth rings visible on a freshly cut tree stump. They are concrete things we can see, like the spiral arrangement of petals on a flower, or complex ideas, like the life cycle of a leaf. Have your child choose a living object, like a flower or mushroom, and have them describe what pattern they see. Is there a repetitive group of objects that can be identified? What is the individual shape, and how many times is it repeated? This exercise covers the basics of multiplication. For an exercise of pattern recognition in concepts or cycles, have them choose a tree or plant and describe their life story, starting from a seedling. This exercise also exemplifies empathy and the ability to emotionally connect to the spirit of nature. 


Symmetry, like patterns, is another mathematical concept that is well-represented in nature. If an object remains unchanged when it’s rotated, flipped, or divided into equal parts, it’s symmetrical. Gather a plethora of nature objects, like leaves, pinecones, flowers, or sticks, and have your child determine which are symmetrical and which are asymmetrical. An object can have reflectional symmetry around a line or axis. An example of this is a butterfly painting you may have created as a child, where you paint one side of the paper, fold it, then open to reveal symmetrical butterfly wings. Rotational symmetry around a central point can be observed in the radial arrangement of flower petals, among other objects from nature. What are some other examples of symmetry found in nature? 

Have your kiddo find four different flowers and determine if they exhibit symmetry, and which type of symmetry it is. Can they recreate the flower using paper shapes or origami? The symmetry of leaves can easily be seen by using the leaf as a stamp; paint the leaf using acrylic or watercolor paint, then stamp it onto paper to create a leaf print. No paint? The leaf can make its own pigment thanks to its abundance of chlorophyll. Put the leaf between two pieces of paper, and use a rock to hammer the leaf to crush the plant cells and release its natural pigment—this will leave an imprint on the paper. A similar craft can be made using clay/dough instead of paper, pressing the leaf into the material to leave a detailed imprint. Using a magnifying glass, children can then explore the lines of the leaf and determine whether symmetry is present. 

Nature provides the key components of a classroom for learning the fundamentals of mathematics, with trees as our teachers and plants as our paper. The more we calm our minds and look for patterns present in nature, the more we see them. The more we see, the more we marvel at the awesomeness of nature. With eyes open to seeing patterns, we can acknowledge nature as the wise teacher with its infinite lessons and unlimited patience, and respect it for the treasure that it is.