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How gardening can cultivate your child’s maths skills

A couple of years ago, I joined forces with another parent to run a gardening club at our local primary school. We wanted to keep it going because we know outdoor learning helps children to understand and value nature. While running it, I realised that gardening is also a brilliant way to boost children’s maths skills.

There are as many different ways to do this as there are different gardens – from a wild meadow to a neat flowerbed; from a couple of containers on a balcony to a kitchen windowsill. To get you started, I’ve mapped out five ideas that can be adapted no matter how big or small your green space and green fingers.

1. All sorts of sums

Gardening offers plenty of opportunities to practice problem solving using all of the four operations used in maths at primary school (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). For example, ask your child to work out how many seeds or seedlings can be planted in a particular tray or flowerbed, or how much soil they will need to fill a certain container. Younger children could try measuring distances in the garden by counting paces. Are the results always the same? What if you use something that doesn’t change length, like a stick?

Talk about why standard units of measurement are useful. Older children could work out the area of a lawn or flowerbed or make a simple bottle gauge to measure rainfall. Find a clear cylindrical container in the recycling box – a jar or large plastic bottle cut in half will work. Measure 25 ml of water into the container at a time, using a marker pen to mark the level each time. Then empty the bottle and leave it outside. You could partly bury it in soil or sand, or add some pebbles to weigh it down. If you do this, ask your child if they can work out how to adjust the measurements to cancel out the volume of the pebbles. Gardening is a meaningful and motivating way to make maths a part of everyday life.

2. Ask impossible questions

The garden is a great place to ask questions that seem silly, before using simple maths to work out sensible answers. For example, how many blades of grass on a lawn? How many aphids on a plant? How many leaves on a tree? How many stones in a flowerbed?

Finding the answers is all about sampling. Show your child how to select a small area where counting is possible. Measure the size of this area to work out many times you need to multiply your answer to scale it up. This is a great way to introduce and develop estimation skills.

Top tip: See if your child can think of ways to refine their answers – for example, how can they be sure that the patch of lawn or leaf they chose is typical? Can they sample two or three different places, and find an average answer? 

 

3. Collecting and presenting data

Plants, gardens and the wildlife living in them change throughout the year. This makes the garden an interesting place to collect and compare data over time. For example, your child could grow or ‘adopt’ a plant – whether it’s a sunflower or a weed – and measure its height at regular intervals. They can plot the results on a graph track how seasonal change affects growth.

Or, why not hold a monthly bug hunt and use a tally chart to record the minibeasts (small but fascinating creatures like beetles, spiders and snails) you find? Your child can create pictograms or bar graphs to show how the count changes over the year. You could even submit their data to citizen science projects – some good ones to take a look at are The Big Bug Hunt, The Big Garden Birdwatch, or the National Moth Recording Scheme.

4. Be curious

Gardening often leads to curious questions. If your child asks the name of a plant, encourage them to note down the shape of a leaf, measure its area and count the number of smaller leaflets each leaf is divided into. Then look up together what the plant might be – the Woodland Trust is a good place to start.

Help older children to turn their curious questions into simple experiments. For example, plant seeds from fruit you have eaten in simple pots made from newspaper or cardboard tubes. What happens if you put the pots in different places in your home or garden? In lighter or darker, warmer or colder spots? Change one thing at a time and encourage your child to measure each growing plant at regular intervals. Gardening is all about experimenting to find out what works best.

5. Eat what you sow

Growing fruit and vegetables leads to mathematical learning in the kitchen as well as the garden! You don’t need special raised beds or equipment. Don’t throw away potatoes that have sprouted – grow them in a strong bag, or an old cardboard box. Tomatoes can be grown in pots on a sunny windowsill. Pumpkin seeds can be collected, washed and dried, and planted the following spring or summer for a bumper crop come autumn!

Use all the ideas above to bring maths into the planning and growing stages. Then carry on the learning in the kitchen, by asking children to choose and follow recipes with the ingredients they have grown. They could even use maths to work out how much money they have saved by growing their own!

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