where does mathematics live outside?

Posted on: April 3rd, 2015 by jnovakowski

Byng Elementary has been involved in a place-based mathematics project and we are beginning our second year of exploring ways that students can make connections between mathematics, place, story and culture. The school has been part of a project through the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN). On Wednesday morning, I visited the two kindergarten classes and we introduced some big ideas.

We began with a sharing circle focused on the question: What is mathematics?

Most of the students commented that it was numbers, counting, adding and subtracting, putting together and one Kindergarten student even said math was homework! With some coaxing I was able to get the students to acknowledge that shapes were part of math too and they were able to name some shapes. One student said mathematics was thinking and learning…that made my heart sing a little! I needed to jump in and do a little discussion about mathematics being more than working with numbers and I listed several things that were “mathy” trying to help the students make connections.

With a beginning understanding that mathematics is more than numbers, we took a walk outside and huddled together near some large trees. I asked students to look around like mathematicians and notice where they see mathematics or make a connection to mathematics. This was not easy for these students. I think for these classes, there was some novelty about being outside even though I had carefully prefaced our trip outside as a “thinking and learning time” there was still a lot of distraction, jumping on rocks, climbing trees, digging worm holes, wanting to run, etc. You know, typical five year old stuff! It reminded me how important it is for students to be outside regularly and to just see the outdoor as an extension of their classrooms.

One class was very focused on looking for numbers and commented that the trunk of a tree looked like a 1 and that one of the rocks, if you turned sideways, looked like a 1.


The students displayed some curiosity about the two large evergreen trees and how long they had been there. They noticed how tall they were and one student wondered how you could measure them. In trying to connect to the age of the trees,  I shared the story of this place and tried to have the students imagine what this place might have looked like before the school and playground were there, before there were roads and before there were houses and stores. This was hard for these students. One student thought there would just be dirt. I shared the story of the place near Byng, the river and what is now called Garry Point. I explained that for thousands of years a community of people called the Musqueam fished in the rivers, harvested plants for medicine and food from the land and that there was a temporary village at one time at the point. I explained that the Musqueam community was still a strong, thriving community and that their “village” was now across the river from Richmond. I could tell this was new information for the students and hard for them to understand. At this age, I try and respond to the students in terms of how much information they are able to take in about this and every class is different and has varying levels of background information. We will try and continue building their understanding this spring.

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One of the classes had recently gone out for a shape walk and this is what they focused on in our time outside. They enjoyed identifying shapes but we didn’t get much past that. The teacher and I noted how all the shapes they were noticing were human-created.

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I took the opportunity to have the students look at two trees and see if they could see shapes in them. Although the edges in nature aren’t as clear as in human-made structures/shapes, we did get to students noticing that one tree had a triangle shape while the other was round, or  like a circle. I thought this might inspire some questions. I think next time I will need to structure our time in a way that focuses on wonder – asking the students to wonder aloud, ask questions, make connections and share their thinking.

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One student was able to tell express a big idea that he took away from our time together – that math is more than numbers, it is shapes and patterns too. We made a start! Next time, we will re-visit how we define mathematics, look at the photographs we took and look for some mathematical inspiration in them.


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