The Outdoor Classroom

Standards Met: CCSS.Math.Content.K.MD.B.3; NGSS ESS2.E

What You Need: Chart paper, magnifying glasses, mini clipboards, sticky notes, paper, crayons

What to Do: Bringing young learners outdoors supports experiential learning, especially when reinforcing concepts such as classification, counting, sorting, and patterns, says Alexis McDonell, a kindergarten teacher at Anson Park Public School in Toronto.

McDonell tells children they will spend time in their “outdoor classroom” collecting items from nature for further investigation; they should keep the question, “What did you notice in our outdoor classroom?” in mind. She distributes materials to children and explains they will use sticky notes and crayons to record their findings through drawing and/or labeling. “Any worries I had about the children not being excited disappeared the minute we got outside. They spread out all over the yard, crouching under bushes, turning over logs, and digging in the soil,” says McDonell, who blogs at The Curious Kindergarten.

Once the children are done exploring, they gather up the materials and head inside to share their findings. McDonell restates the question, “What did you notice in our outdoor classroom?” Students are encouraged to share their findings—the items they observed, labeled, and/or counted. McDonell writes the children’s findings on chart paper to be displayed later.

To place a further focus on emergent math skills, encourage students to observe and record their surroundings with a specific focus on color, shape, or pattern. Have students count how many of the same natural items they see. For example, four mushrooms in a patch, eight trees in a courtyard, four birds in a tree, or 10 yellow flowers growing in the grass!  

Symmetry Drawings

Standards Met: CCSS.Math.Content.1.MD.A.1; NGSS ESS2.E; NCCAS Anchor Standard 3

What You Need: Leaves, glue, scissors, pencils, paper, small paint brushes, watercolor palettes

What to Do: The natural world, as unpredictable as it sometimes seems, also follows an order. A wonderful way to experience this natural symmetry is through observation and art. Erin Dean, a homeschool teacher on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, teaches this through drawings.

Prior to the activity, Dean introduces the concept of symmetry, or the idea that shapes and objects have identical sides when split down the middle. She discusses symmetrical shapes, such as circles, squares, and hearts, with her students, and she then creates simple symmetry drawings by sketching one side of the shape and having students create the mirror image to complete it.

When children are comfortable with the concept of symmetry and basic shapes, Dean has them go on a 20-minute walk outside to find symmetry in nature, telling them to collect one or two leaves. “We each choose a leaf that we think would be interesting to explore further,” says Dean, who blogs at The Usual Mayhem

Once they return to the classroom, students examine their leaves, taking note not only of the symmetry but of the size, shape, and color. Then, to expand on the concept, Dean repeats the drawing exercise using the leaves collected during their walk.

She has students carefully cut their leaves in half lengthwise and glue one half onto a sheet of paper. When the glue has dried, students are asked to draw the other side of the leaf, doing their best to replicate the patterns and shapes apparent in the leaf and show the symmetry between the two sides. As a finishing touch, Dean hands out watercolor palettes and small brushes and encourages students to paint their leaf symmetry drawings.

Summertime Shadows

Standards Met: CCSS.Math.Content.K.G.B.4; NGSS ESS2.E; NCCAS Anchor Standard 10

What You Need: The Shape of Me and Other Stuff, by Dr. Seuss; digital camera; printer (optional: labels and pencils)

What to Do: A sunny summer day is the perfect time to study shadows and shapes. Shaunna Evans, a former first-grade teacher in Orlando, Florida, took her students outdoors for shadow shape hunts.

First, Evans would read The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. The book’s simple text and silhouette illustrations got kids thinking about the shapes that make up everyday items. “The book also inspired little ones to be proud of their own unique shape. It concludes with, ‘Hooray for the shapes we’re in!’” says Evans, who blogs at Fantastic Fun and Learning.

Then, Evans took her students outside to a local park for a shape hunt, making sure that the sun was bright and casting solid shadows. She explained they would be locating shadows, naming the shapes they saw, and taking photos of both the object and its shadow. (If you can, split your class into groups, giving each group a digital camera. If not, be the keeper of the camera and have students call you over to take a picture once they’ve found a shape shadow.) Evans also had students think about the following: Are there multiple shapes within the object’s shadow? If so, what are they?

Once they were back in the classroom, Evans printed out the pictures taken during the day, making sure to print photos of both the items and their corresponding shadows. She then had students work in groups to match the items with their shadows. While matching the photos, students recalled the shapes they saw.

As an extension activity, have students label the photos with the name of the item, as well as the shapes that make it up.

Teaching Tally Marks

Standard Met: CCSS.Math.Content.K.CC.A.2

What You Need: Sticks of similar width (enough to create 100 shorter sticks), gardening gloves, paper, pencils, scissors

What to Do: Amanda Boyarshinov, an education writer and former kindergarten teacher from Orlando, liked to venture outside to teach the concept of tally marks. “My kids loved bringing our classroom outdoors for this lesson. You may even find that they start to tally on their own during recess or playtime,” she says.

First, Boyarshinov and her class would take a trip to a local park to collect sticks. Once the sticks were collected (enough to create 100 shorter sticks), she broke them into six-inch-long lengths. (Use scissors and gardening gloves if the sticks prove to be tough to break up.) Let students help break up the smaller sticks, as long as they are careful.

Next, she would find a paved area to use as a workstation. She explained to students that a tally is a way to keep a record while counting, and that they would be making tally marks using the sticks. She demonstrated how to create tally marks: four sticks straight up and the fifth at a diagonal for every count of five. She then handed out the sticks to the students and encouraged them to practice building sets of five, 10, or more tally marks. Eventually, she had them use additional sets to count by fives to 100.

As an extension activity, Boyarshinov, who blogs at The Educators’ Spin on It, would call out a number and have students build it with tally marks, counting out loud as they pointed to their sets to show understanding.



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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alexis McDonell