Inside Outside Schoolmath trailsoutdoor education

Step outside for learning

The Inside Outside School is known for its innovative incorporation of the outdoors into its academic curriculum. This guest post from IOS director Deborah Hale is adapted from photo essays she posted earlier this month on the school’s blog. Reading this might just lead you to try a few of these activities with your own kids this summer!

We are always looking for ways to get outside for math and science. Some of the most popular ways at our school involve math trails. In fact, a few months ago I decided to write a book about math trails. I thought it would be easy because I am so passionate about the topic, but it’s hard to convey on paper the excitement of an outdoor math adventure. I’m wondering if this should be a movie instead.

On this math trail there are a few stations where students find a whiteboard with a problem typical of what we’ve been doing in class. They have a trail map to record their work and answers on a clipboard.

The magnetic garage door of the theater building is an excellent stop on the trail, now that we have a set of large magnetic money.


By the way, when you are studying money-related math outdoors, money can grow on trees . . .


. . . and even in the garden. This kind of math adventure is so much fun because it is a lot like an Easter egg hunt!



Speaking of Easter egg hunts, at station #3 on the trail, students found three eggs hidden under a traffic cone, each with six shells in it. The traffic cones are a great way to make it clear where the math stations are set up.

The driveway is part of our outdoor classroom. We used concrete paint to mark large number lines and a blank hundreds chart.


Here you can see examples of some of our manipulatives: wooden number blocks that the shop classes helped to create, felt number patches made last year in sewing classes, and wooden ten sticks. This student has just solved 82 minus 29. These activities all happened on the school grounds not far from the buildings.

Next we found out what a math trail can look like in the woods down by the creek. Upper elementary students used the stick method to measure the height of trees. All you need is a stick and a measuring tape. They also worked to find the diameter of trees after determining the circumference. The circumference is measured at 4.5 feet up from the ground. Then you divide the circumference by pi (3.14). It is great to estimate before measuring, and then you can always throw in a little subtraction when you determine the difference between the estimate and the actual measurement. A final activity was measuring the canopy of a tree.

Another great way to integrate math and science is with a square foot garden. You can see the string that the students used earlier in the year to mark off the squares after measuring the perimeter and area of the planting space. Once the garden is divided, students must research the plants they want to cultivate to find out how many each square will support. We have harvested and replanted this garden throughout the school year. Growth of plants can be measured, recorded, and compared.

Another part of gardening is weighing the harvest and recording the data. Then you get to use the basil and tomatoes for making lasagna! Integrating math into cooking is another great way to make connections. This has been indoor work for us so far, until we get the rest of our outdoor kitchen set up (unless we are using our cob oven).

During our Native American cultural study, students created active learning connections in the garden by setting up a “three sisters” garden with Helen, our nature science teacher. We even “planted” a dead fish from our creek to enrich the soil. The corn provides a pole for the beans, the beans stabilize the corn plant and fix nitrogen, and the squash acts as mulch to prevent evaporation of moisture in the soil. The nutritional elements of these foods add additional material for learning.

Helen recently noticed some caterpillars and chrysalises on a mustard plant, so she brought in a number of books for the students to use to find out what they were seeing. It turned out to be a cabbage butterfly, and the following week we all got to see one of them freshly emerged and drying its wings.

We encourage you to step outside whenever you can, too, and see what you can learn!

Deborah Hale

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