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Autumn is one of my favourite times of the year to work on some maths outside: the mornings are often crisp and bright but it is not too cold and dull in the way that it can be during the winter months. Younger pupils often work outside of the classroom walls all year round, albeit in covered areas adjoining the classroom but this tends to reduce in frequency, or even stop altogether, as pupils progress through the primary years. Apart from adding variety to your lessons, working outside can actually allow better exploration of some areas in maths.

So what maths can we do outside?

Measuring the perimeters of playgrounds, netball courts, gazebos or the school itself are just a few obvious choices, once the pupils have had an opportunity to predict the perimeters themselves of course. The prediction part is often where we discover that many pupils seem to have little awareness of real-life measures, regardless of the magnitude or type of measurement and so find estimating very difficult. One reason for this appears to be a lack of known measurements to which they can refer, so many pupils are unaware that an exercise book is approximately 20cm in width or that a standard classroom table top measures 1100cm by 550cm, making it a useful reference object for a metre length.

You may be lucky enough to have some working trundle wheels to use when measuring outside and these can be very useful for measuring longer distances quickly. However, consigning a particular length to be measured to various groups can be fruitful since this gives rise to questions such as, Do we need to measure the whole perimeter? Given that a netball court is split into thirds, we would only need to measure a third and multiply by three but it is often best if the pupils discover this for themselves. The width of the court is also half the length.

Apart from carrying out a variety of measuring activities, it is worthwhile thinking about actually walking somewhere. Many schools regularly walk their pupils to places such as the local swimming pool or a local place of worship. Have the pupils had the opportunity to estimate and then measure the distance that they are walking? This can provide a useful reference point for longer distances such as kilometres. It is also a practical introduction to speed when pupils consider how long a familiar journey takes.

Another suitable area of maths for outside work is shape. Here is where thick chalk sticks make a useful addition to your set of maths resources. A simple idea is to ask groups of pupils to draw as many quadrilaterals as they can within a given time frame. Do pupils try to carefully draw the named quadrilaterals such as rectangles (including squares) and kites or do they also include irregular quadrilaterals (which are much easier to draw)? This can be carried out for any polygon to move pupils away from only considering regular or symmetrical versions of polygons (that are carefully oriented) as are displayed on the majority of shape posters that adorn primary classroom walls.

Symmetry can also be explored effectively on the playground; in addition to thick chalk, you will need metre sticks (or long straight pieces of any rigid material) that will act as mirror lines or lines of symmetry. The idea is that two pupils are provided with an instruction to draw half of a shape that meets the mirror line. Another two pupils then have to complete the shape while making sure that the complete shape is symmetrical. This emphasises the relationship between matching points that are equidistant from the mirror line along a line that is perpendicular to the line of symmetry. Lines can then be drawn between these matching points in order to complete the shape.

Using the outdoor space also allows your pupils to be much more active and there are lots of number activities which would benefit from being undertaken on the playground. For example, when working on doubles of numbers, or in fact any sets of multiples, each team could be tasked with finding the multiples of that number which have been placed around the playground beforehand. If the teams consist of pairs, pupils would need to talk about whether a particular number is in their multiple set and why. This activity could be far less successful in the confines of the classroom.

Some teachers express concern about pupils’ behaviour when working outside but when it is something that pupils do regularly, they are fully engaged and have been given clear parameters about what to do and how much time they have to do it, the likelihood of misbehaviour is often reduced. However, it is worth having at least one extra adult to assist when outside, depending on the number of pupils you are working with.

So have a look at your planning for next week and see whether there are any maths activities that would benefit from donning coats and pursuing some active work outside.