Mathematics in Nature

Mathematics exists all around us in the natural world. It is our task to bring our children’s attention to the data and help them see the world around them in a mathematical way.

Although often “appearing more” in nature during early childhood, observing, counting, measuring, collecting data, comparing, and classifying objects are all mathematical concepts that are needed and used throughout middle school, high school, college, and into adulthood. Conservation biologists, wilderness rangers, and researcher professionals all use mathematics in nature on a daily basis for their careers.

The Key to Exploring Mathematics in Nature

So how do we get kids “thinking math” when they are outside exploring nature? It really is easy and doesn’t require many fancy tools. In fact, we find a notebook, pencil, and a ruler are all the tools that we need. The key to exploring mathematics in natures is to:

  1. Be outside
  2. Observe
  3. Think mathematically
  4. Record data
  5. Discuss

Take these lizards one of my students found the other day:

Adult:                                                      Child:

How many did you catch?                   Two

How many lizards did you see?         There were 5 more we couldn’t catch, and 8 altogether – neat!

Were they all the same size?               No, the others were bigger. We caught the small ones.

How small are these?                          <holds up a thumb to estimate> About 3 inches.

Let’s release them, and sketch them in our journals. Make sure to look closely at the colors and patterns on each lizard so that we can note these in our writing.

In this mini-lesson, we addressed numbers, measurement, and attributes – all math! The students were engaged, motivated, and were literally bursting with excitement to talk about numbers. Their conversations as they began writing turned more scientific in nature, discussing the fact that there were smaller lizards than usual. One child thought it was due to the seasons, another that it had been rainier than usual. They decided to go lizard hunting every day to test their hypothesis.

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Mathematics Topics that Easily Connect to Nature

You may (or may not) have lizards to count and observe. Don’t worry; mathematics exists in all of nature, from roses and comparing the varietals to a pile of rocks. Here are some mathematics topics that easily connect to nature and some activity suggestions.

Use addition and subtraction equations.

  • Observe a butterfly garden. Record the number of butterflies that land on specific flowers or areas within a given time period. Write number sentences to represent what occurs.
  • Sort found rocks based on colors or sizes. Add the groups together to find out how many there are. How many more rocks are in one group than the other?
  • Note the number of birds visible on a particular tree at the same time on two different days. Find the difference and discuss.

Measure lengths with standard and non-standard tools for measurement.

  • How big are the vegetables growing in your garden? Estimate or measure with a ruler.
  • Are more rocks in your outdoor area more than or less than 3 inches. Bring along a ruler and make a T-chart to record data.
  • Select a tree and record the measurements: the diameter, proximity to other trees and the tree’s height using the Pythagorean theory.

Describe and compare measurable attributes.

  • Select two leaves that have fallen on the ground. Make a crayon rubbing of each on one piece of paper. Label the attributes: length and width measurements, color, shape, number of points.
  • Find two rose bushes of different varieties. Compare their color, blossom size, leaf length, size of thorns, and number of flowers growing.
  • Observe two different clumps of fungi from a distance. Take a digital photo of each. Describe each with measurable attributes such as shape, color, and size. Write a paragraph to describe the differences and similarities.

Classify objects and count the number of objects in categories.

  • Use your written observations of butterflies and a guide to find the common and scientific name for each found species.
  • Walk outside and count the number of trees with simple verses compound leaves.
  • Participate in citizen scientist research projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count. Identify the species and number of birds in a given area. Record the data and submit it to the organization following their guidelines. They will publish the results later on in the year and provide statistical data for students to compare.
Find My Local Sylvan
We'd love to talk with you about how we can help your child reach his or her individual goals!