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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How I learned building great teams sometimes requires heavy lifting, literally.

Our guest blogger today is Uniit Carruyo,  an early childhood educator and author of Team Teaching in Early Childhood: Leadership Tools for Reflective Practice (available from Redleaf Press). Here she ponders the elements of a productive team.

Photo by Joey Steinhagen


For much of my twenty-plus year career in early childhood, I have been a classroom teacher. Over the course of the past three years, I have served as an administrator in various roles. Hands down, the most challenging role I have ever had to fill was as the Interim Executive Director of the Montessori school where I spend my days. For six months, while the school conducted a national search for an Executive Director, I filled in-wearing more hats than I thought possible. In my small, non-profit school, being the ED meant keeping the school on the tracks, from plunging the toilets and shoveling sidewalks to overseeing the financials on a daily basis.

Redleaf Press; $24.95

While interim, I was invited to attend a regular meeting for non-profit leaders. I will never forget the first meeting. I walked in the conference room at our local public library to see leaders of organizations from all over the county. Schools and day care centers were represented, along with a host of other organizations that serve the public. I was in a room full of leaders. Being an introvert, I stayed on the edges of the room while I got a sense of group norms, got myself a cup of coffee and settled in for the meeting. The guest speaker that day wanted all the participants to be able to see her slide show, which was being projected at the front of the room. This is when something truly amazing happened.

With very little communication, this room full of leaders all jumped from their seats and started moving the tables around. There were about 40 people in attendance, and I was astonished to see every single person in the room start helping immediately. Some picked up a side to a table, some pulled chairs from the stacks along the wall, some moved chairs to make room for the new table arrangement.

“There was not one person standing idly, not one person skimming their phone or making small talk.”

There was not one person standing idly, not one person skimming their phone or making small talk. The transformation of the room happened quickly, smoothly and the participants settled in to listen to the guest speaker. While the lecture was engaging and informative, the thing that struck me the most was that small moment of cooperation.

What was it about this group of people that made such cooperation possible? I asked the group that very question during the Q&A, and they laughed good-naturedly at my wonder. “Trust”, answered one participant.

“We’ve worked together a lot, so we know what needs to be done”.  “Maybe it’s because we’ve all done some heavy lifting to get where we are today”, another responded.

“We’ve all done some heavy lifting to get where we are today.”

To me, this moment sums up what it takes to cooperate and get something accomplished. Trust, combined with a team of people who are all willing to work hard for a common goal, equals productive teams. These are exactly the qualities necessary to have a smoothly running, high functioning classroom. In the moment I described, the stakes were low; a comfortable seating area for a room full of adults getting ready for a lecture.

In early childhood classrooms everywhere, the stakes are very high. A group of young children, constantly absorbing every bit of information around them, whose physical and emotional safety are in our hands. Teachers are entrusted with the most precious of tasks: educating the next generation of leaders.

In order to do this important work, we have to devote some time and attention to developing our teaching teams by practicing compassion, empathy and reflection.

I was happy to recently hand over the title of ED to someone else. I also fully intend to continue to move tables and chairs whenever there is a need.

Here’s to taking action together and building healthy teams!

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How I helped a child overcome fear by not helping

Jarrod Green, early childhood educator and author of I’m OK! Building Resilience through Physical Play, shares a personal experience helping one of his littles overcome fear, and gain confidence through self-help.

*Names have been changed to protect the brave.

Sliding Towards Resilience by Jarrod Green

“Augh! Aaaaaugh!”

up-at-the-slide-1479652-638x428I turned around to see Calvin*, a three-year-old in my class, hollering from the top of the
slide. The slide was yellow and blue plastic, no more than three feet high. I could see, though, that Calvin had gotten stuck at the top, with one leg down the slide and the other down the steps. He was quickly turning red and nearing tears, and I knew it was an important moment for his learning.

Physical risk-taking is a powerful opportunity for young children to develop a wide range of skills that are difficult to build in other contexts. By trying out activities that push the limits of their physical abilities, children build self-knowledge, self-regulation, self-confidence, and self-help skills; by intervening thoughtfully, teachers can nurture this learning. A teacher’s response to a child’s moment of uncertainty can determine whether the child learns harmful lessons (for instance, “Trying is scary” or “I’m not safe here”) or helpful ones (like “I can take care of myself” or “I can solve problems even when I’m scared”).

As I walked toward Calvin I quickly reflected on what I knew about him and some possible goals for this moment. He was a child who tended to display a nervous energy, often sticking close to familiar activities and situations. Playing on the slide with no adult nearby was a big step for him, and I wanted to make sure that the experience remained positive. He was also a child who tended to get very upset about small frustrations, and we had been working with him to feel confident shrugging off “little problems” and taking steps to fix “big problems.” Getting stuck at the top of the slide looked like a legitimate reason to get upset, but I wanted to make sure he would feel like a successful problem-solver at the end of it.

“Hey Calvin!” I said, trying to find a tone somewhere between empathetic concern and relaxed confidence. “You sound upset. What’s up?”

“I can’t get down!” he cried, and he threw his arms and his upper body towards me, clearly asking with his gestures to be lifted down. I stopped just beyond his arms’ reach.

“It looks like you’re stuck with one leg on each side, and you’re feeling frustrated,” I observed. “But I’ve seen you go up and down this slide so many times today! I know you can get down.”

“I can’t! Help!” He reached for me again, straining over the edge of the slide.

I squatted to put my face at his level. “I will help you,” I said. “I will help you climb down. You are strong, and you are a good climber, and you can climb down.”

“No!” he cried. He was getting more upset.

“Let’s take a slow breath together,” I suggested. Mindfulness skills like breathing are a core practice at the Children’s Community School, and familiar to every child we teach. “Take a breath in your nose. Ready? Yes, there you go. Let’s do another one, in your nose. Good! Calvin, I promise I will not let you fall. I will stay here and help you climb down, because I know you can do it. Are you ready to climb down now?”

“No,” he said sadly, but his body was a little less tense and he started to look around at his situation.

After a few moments, seeing that he didn’t know how to start, I suggested, “How about you put your hands on the sides, right here?” Over the course of several laborious minutes I coached him all the way down the slide. “Can you bend your knee? That’s it! Put your foot here. I’ve got my hands behind you, I promise you won’t fall.” Calvin shuddered and breathed hard, but he kept moving until both feet were on the ground.

He looked down, then up at me. “I did it!”

“Calvin, you did it!” I said as we exchanged a high five. “You were stuck and you were scared, but you worked hard and got yourself down. No one lifted you, and no one climbed for you—you did it yourself! You really know how to take care of yourself, don’t you?”

Or rather, I meant to say all that. But I never got the chance, because the moment we high-fived Calvin practically ran back up the steps of the slide, and proceeded to slide down five times in a row without pausing for breath.

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David Sobel’s NATURE PRESCHOOLS AND FOREST KINDERGARTENS inspires outdoor school in Crimea

Tanya Bibikova, creator and head of Solnechnosadik, or “Sunny Kindergarten,” credits David Sobel’s Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens (Redleaf Press) as a great inspiration in the organizing of the outdoor preschool in mountain village at Crimea region. Bibikova spoke with Redleaf Press over email to share how the school is faring.

Solnechnosadik opened September 5th, 2016, and Bibikova happily reports, “It already feels like a lifetime of adventures.” They regularly have 3 to 5 kids, but occasionally their numbers will go up to 9 children plus a few parents on crowded days.

When asked about the most important benefits in nature kindergartens Bibikova says, “Long story short: kids are free and happy. They enjoy playing, running wild, climbing trees, observe home and wild animals and learn to respect them. They eat a lot and with great pleasure. And as the mother of two-year old, Yana, who visits our Solnechnosadik, I will say that the rest of the day is more structured, quieter and happier, than before.”

One common concern for outdoor schools is the shelter for extreme weather. Fortunately for Solnechnosadik they haven’t had to build any except for plastic tent they unroll for rains. “We are very lucky with the weather as it was only three days of rain in two months here at Solnechnoselie. The place is known for its great number of sunny days and almost no rain, which is bad for gardening and really good for us,” says Bibikova. They are currently making longer term plans including looking at a “Dubldom,” or small house.

Solnechnosadik has a tradition of serving fresh mint tea made of mint they gather with the children every day. “Some days we roast bread on fire or even cook a soup from fresh champions that grows in our apple garden,” shares Bibikova. Another favorite part of the children’s day includes Sunbeam—Sunny rabbit in Russian. “We have an animal totem—Sunbeam—who writes letters everyday for the kids,” explains Bibikova, and with a little help of the teachers the children will write letters back to Sunbeam at the end of the day about big things happened. “We have a special hole in tree trunk to exchange messages. Kids looove the letters and Sunbeam very much,” Bibikova explains.

We are incredibly grateful for Tanya Bibikova sharing Solnechnosadik’s story and photos with us, and thrilled to see David Sobel’s Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens put into practice. To learn more about Solnechnosadik you can visit them on Facebook and Instagram @solnechnoschool.



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Join Us In Booth #1640 at the NAEYC Conference

Playing together

Redleaf Press authors will be available for signings on Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 during NAEYC’s Annual Conference!

The following authors will be available for signings: Emily Plank, Debra Sullivan, Lisa Murphy, Mike Huber, Rosanne Regan Hansel, Maurice Sykes, Julie Powers, Miriam Beloglovsky, and Lisa Daly. Many Redleaf authors are also presenting on a variety of topics! View the complete list to plan your itinerary here.

Come stop by our booth #1640 to look for your new favorite Redleaf book and say hello! Conference specials include 15% off new titles and free shipping. Hope to see you there!

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Find your favorite fall titles

As the air gets chillier, the leaves shift colors, and nighttime creeps up quicker, it’s the perfect time to snuggle up to Redleaf’s newest books. These new titles hit the shelves this month, perfect timing for the chilly days to come.



Creative Block Play by Rosanne Regan Hansel

Blocks are a timeless toy. They never stop challenging, stimulating and engaging young children. Creative Block Play will help you set up an inviting space for block play, and inspire children’s block creations.


imok-blogI’m OK! Building Resilience Through Physical Play by Jarrod Green 

Children must learn to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and try again. This practical guide supplies you with the tools to create a culture of resilience through physical play.




Celebrate! by Julie Bisson

Just in time for the holiday season, the second edition of Celebrate! can help your program celebrate holidays in a respectful, unbiased way. It’s filled with strategies for implementing culturally and developmentally appropriate holiday activities.



Embracing Rough-and-Tumble Play by Mike Huber

Physical play is vital to young children’s development. This practical, hands-on resource encourages you to incorporate boisterous physical play into every day and offers concrete advice on how to create spaces for safe play.



The Language of Art by Ann Pelo

The second edition of The Language of Art further expands on the inspiration born in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This resource offers guidance for teachers to create space, time, and intentional processes for children’s exploration.




Practical Solutions to Practically Every Problem by Steffen Saifer

 Find solutions quickly and easily! The third edition of this classic book offers hundreds of updated tested solutions for the tricky problems, questions, and concerns that arise throughout the early childhood teacher’s day.




Kimmy’s Marvelous Wind-Catching Wonder by Linda Glaser and illustrated by Rachael Balsaitis

Kimmy wants to build a kite, but everyone around her says she can’t. She cuts and pastes paper and ribbon all morning, but will it fly? This book will help you teach children how to take risks and stand up for themselves.

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DIY Play Dough for National Play Dough Day

Friday, September 16 is National Play Dough Day, which is the perfect excuse to make some homemade play dough. The main benefit of sensory play—activities that stimulate a child’s sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing— is that it’s one of the best ways children learn about the world around them.

Child moulds from ecological plasticine on table.

By touching loose, malleable objects such as play dough children are discovering the concepts of mass, volume and dimension. There is also a language element to sensory play, when teachers or caregivers offer adjectives to describe textures a child is feeling they build up their vocabulary. Words such as ‘rough,’ ‘wet,’ ‘dry,’ ‘bumpy,’ and ‘smooth’ are often used during sensory play.

Play dough also helps develop children’s small motor skills and strength as they push, squish and mold it in their hands. Similar to adults who squeeze stress balls to relax, children who play with play dough or other malleable objects feel better emotionally.

The best part about playing with play dough is that there is plenty of room for mistakes, what started out as a snake can turn into a snail. There are no right or wrong answers and children learn to make mistakes in a safe environment. Celebrating and learning from their mistakes is an important skill for children to bring into school and adulthood.

In honor of National Play Dough Day, we’ve pulled a great play dough recipe from The Ooey Gooey Handbook by Lisa Murphy.

play do.png

For more information on the importance of sensory play, check out Lisa Murphy on Play the Foundations of Children’s Learning by Lisa Murphy and Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences For a Joyful Childhood by Ann Gadzikowski.


Gadzikowski, Ann. Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences for a Joyous Childhood. St. Paul: Redleaf, 2015. Print.

Murphy, Lisa. Lisa Murphy on Play: The Foundation of Children’s Learning. St. Paul: Redleaf, 2016. Print.

Murphy, Lisa. “Playdough.” The Ooey Gooey Handbook: Identifying and Creating Child-centered Environments. St. Paul: Redleaf, 2001. 115. Print.

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