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Three Outdoor Activities for Kids to Practice Sorting and Creating Sets with Nature

Mother and daughter walking in the forest
Get out there! Nature offers endless opportunities to practice math.
Things from nature like pinecones, sticks, leaves, flowers, rocks, shells and acorns are just waiting to be used to develop kids' math skills. Here are three simple ways you can use them to tap into your child’s mathematical thinking outdoors.
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No matter what time of year it is where you live, or what the weather is like, nature provides endless opportunities for children to flex their mathematical thinking.

When we take the learning outdoors, kids can hone their observational skills and get curious about the world around them. And instead of purchasing expensive hands-on mathematics kits for your child, connecting with nature provides a variety of loose parts that are just waiting to be utilized to practice math. Things like pinecones, sticks, leaves, flowers, rocks, shells and acorns provide us with ample opportunities to support children in developing counting and cardinality skills.

Here are three simple ways you can tap into your child’s mathematical thinking outdoors.

Egg Carton Nature Hunt

Make the most out of an egg carton that was heading for the trash by inviting your child to go on an egg carton nature hunt. Before heading outside, think about how many items you’d like your child to find (it’s a good idea to think about your child’s particular abilities, age and attention span). If you’d like your child to start with finding six items, cut the egg carton in half. Alternatively, challenge your child by inviting them to find 12 items.

Once you’ve decided on the number of items, think about what specific items you’d like your child to find. Examples might include acorns, clovers, dandelions, feathers, grass, leaves, stones, small sticks or rocks. Support your child’s understanding by helping them draw small images of each item and taping the pictures on top of the egg carton. You can also write down how many of each item they should find on their nature hunt (e.g., two dandelions or three blades of grass). Encourage your child to respect nature by only picking up fallen items as opposed to picking them from living plants. Head outside and watch your child enjoy sorting the natural items. Use math talk such as:

  • “Where should we look to find an acorn? Up high or down low? How do you know?”
  • “Can you use your words to describe an acorn? What shapes is it?”
  • “How many pebbles did you find? Do we have more pebbles or more flowers in the egg carton?”
  • “What is the same about this blade of grass and this leaf? What is different?”

This activity can be modified to focus on color, shape, texture and more.

Nature Graphing

All you need for this activity is a large piece of paper (brown packing paper or a used paper bag work great), coloring materials, a basket and an outdoor space. Prior to heading outside, create a simple graph on the piece of paper by writing “things in nature” on the bottom (x-axis) and “How many” on the left side (y-axis). Brainstorm four items your child will likely find the most of, based on the time of year and where you live. For example, your neighborhood might have many leaves, fallen flowers, acorns and rocks. Involve your child in drawing pictures of the items you brainstormed on the bottom (x-axis). Alternatively, find magazine pictures to glue on your graph instead. Head outside and give your child the basket to carry. Place the graph on the ground and use rocks to prevent it from blowing away. Search for the items in nature and place them directly on the graph. This will provide a concrete representation of how many of each item you found and allow children to make comparisons as they sort the items into groups based on the graph’s pictures. Use math talk to encourage curiosity, such as:

  • “Where should we put this acorn? What do you see on the graph that helps you know where to put the acorn?” You can use this question for each item.
  • “How many leaves do we have? How many rocks do we have? Do we have more leaves or more rocks? How do you know?”
  • “Which items are bumpy, soft, hard, small, big, colorful, etc.?”
  • “If we sort the items in a different way, based on color, shape and size, which items might go in a pile together? Why?”

Nature Sort

Print out a copy of the My Nature Sort activity or create your own on a large piece of paper. Gather coloring materials and writing tools and place them in a bag or container you can bring outside. Head out and invite your child to observe nature and find things that fit into each category. Guide your child to draw pictures, write words or phrases, or gather the items they find and place them in your container. Prompt your child to hone their observational skills by using math talk such as:

  • “Where can I look to find things that fly?”
  • “I see a feather here on the ground. I wonder where I should draw the feather? Is it soft, can it fly, or do I find it up high?”
  • “This flower is very soft and it is one of my favorite things. I’m going to draw this flower in both categories.”

As your child stays engaged, invite them to come up with their own categories to sort things in nature. Ideas might include sorting based on texture, color, shape, purpose, height, size or other creative characteristics.

When we bring learning outdoors, we support children in making sense of the world around them. We also provide children with the chance to move their bodies, make connections to the earth, and see that “doing math” doesn’t just take place in school or with pencil and paper. What other ways can you bring math outdoors?

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