Using nature to teach math in early childhood


Perhaps the only domain that gets less love from early childhood educators than science is math. How many people have said at one time or another, “I’m not a math person” or “I don’t have the math gene”? It’s a sad truth that many early educators tend to avoid math. And if you’re one of them, you are not alone! A reported 30 percent of Americans have stated that they’d rather clean the bathroom than do a math problem! ( 2016). In early childhood, comfort with math and fluency with the subject can be stronger predictors of later academic success than even literacy. There are studies that show that children who enter kindergarten with a certain comfort with math go on to be high achievers through their middle and high school years (Claessens and Engel 2013). Researchers have observed children at play and noted that mathematical thinking shows up frequently in play settings (Ginsburg 2000). For example, children’s play involves pattern and shapes, comparisons, and numbers. This tells us that young children have an innate curiosity about math and a natural tendency to “think math.” As educators, our job is to help support that curiosity through experience and opportunities for them to engage in math learning and playing. Young children are naturally driven to make sense of things, create representations of things, and solve simple mathematical problems. If asked, they can usually reason and explain their mathematical activities.


Loose parts can be wonderful math tools. They can be sorted, organized, arranged in patterns, used as measuring tools, and more. Children are also interested in shapes and spatial sense, measurement, and patterns. Loose parts are wonderful for making patterns and can be used in infinite ways. When children design with loose parts, they often naturally try to create symmetry and balance in their creations. They also use loose parts to create shapes, designs and patterns. 

This tendency indicates the beginning of algebraic thinking, as patterns are at the heart of algebra. Identifying shapes and describing spatial relationships are processes at the core of geometry.

Natural materials and nature-based settings, with their unending variety and diversity, offer children a lot of ways to investigate shapes, spatial relationships, and symmetry. They also embody a variety of attributes. In mathematics, attribute is a characteristic used to describe an object. The attribute usually describes the object’s shape, size, or color—something that can be measured; for example, the “big red ball” is a description of an object that is identified by its attributes: its size color and shape. You can help children develop their understanding of attributes by asking questions that encourage them to measure, count, compare, and contrast:

How many legs does the grasshopper have?”

What’s the pattern you see on this caterpillar?”

Can you tell me what’s alike and what’s different about these things?”

“What’s different about these things?” or “How are they alike?”

By attending to attributes, children are also engaging in form of measuring (“This rock has four spots; this rock has two spots . . .”) because they are quantifying, or identifying measurable attributes and comparing objects by using these attributes. They are also comparing objects in search of similarities and differences. While most early education classrooms include many objects with clearly defined attributes (such as pattern blocks), natural materials are especially well-suited to this purpose because they require young children to identify variations in attributes and thus to be more thoughtful about how certain objects or groups of objects may be alike or different. They require young children to identify and attend to the attributes that matter to them, to create their own systems for sorting and organizing. Also, because of their endless variation, natural materials can be sorted and organized again and again in a variety of ways. For example, Children may sort leaves based on color, then on size, then on shape, texture, or other attributes that they identify.

There are commonalities in the way that children practice and engage with each of the disciplines and many interconnected ideas. When you can identify and recognize children’s tendency to demonstrate the practices in their nature play, you can help deepen their learning in STEM.


This excerpt was adapted from Teaching STEM Outdoors: Activities for Young Children by Patty Born Selly (Redleaf Press)

Patty Born Selly is  the author of three books for those who work with young children, including Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth and Connecting Animals and Young Children—both from Redleaf Press.  She currently teaches environmental and STEM education for preservice and practicing educators. Patty has worked in the science and nature education field for over 20 years in classrooms, museums, nature centers, and parks. She has worked with students in preschool through adulthood, with a particular focus on early learning. She currently serves as Assistant Professor of Environmental and STEM education at Hamline University in St Paul MN. She  is the former Director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education.

Her passion is connecting teachers and children to nature. Patty lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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