Extending Numeracy in the Outdoors

In what way can we spark an interest for the children who often shy away from numeracy related resources in the outdoors?

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

A study which focused on a small group of children and their interest in outdoor numeracy. Practitioners observed, reflected on practice, and sparked interest using Froebelian principles.

Pebbles lined up in sand


This enquiry investigates how the children in the nursery interact with the numeracy resources that are available to them, specifically in the outdoors. The intention is to learn what will spark an interest for the children and how practitioners can extend the children’s number knowledge. During observation of the outdoor areas, it was found that children often shy away from the numeracy resources. We will investigate ways to engage children with numeracy in the natural environment. Our initial task is to learn whether staff may need to undergo further training or whether it is the area that lacks exciting numeracy resources.



In the setting, the outdoors area consists of a garden area with a shelter and access to a wider space on occasion. Children in the setting are encouraged to explore the outdoors at their own leisure through free flow play in line with the My World Outdoors (Care Inspectorate, 2016) document as it highlights freedom of choice. Like Friedrich Frobel, the setting advocates for child centred choice and learning (Bruce, 2021). The wider area called “Tellytubby Land” is utilised during times of the day when more staff are available to fit in with ratios. “Tellytubby Land” has shared access with the Primary School on campus which means on occasion we mix with the older children. “Tellytubby Land” has a sandpit, a large grassy area with hills and a wooded area.

During observation of the outdoor areas on some separate occasions, it was found that the children often do not engage with the numeracy resources available to them such as the giant numicon, large scales, number stencils and tired Twinkl printouts. Many of the provocations in the garden are worn, old and not easily accessible. Games such as “Sent a letter to my love” and “hide and seek” are popular with the children so, we will consider this when thinking of ideas for activities. After discussion between practitioners, it was noted that the outdoor area could benefit from a refresh. Practitioners are aware of the importance of numeracy for childhood development and began to brainstorm ideas of resources that may spark excitement and how to engage children for longer periods of time through interest-based learning. Staff are also aware that numeracy is intertwined withing all experiences, conversations, and interactions as the document Realising the Ambition: Being Me (Education Scotland, 2020) states. During a team meeting, staff expressed that they are confident in their knowledge about extending numeracy after recently attending training on “Developing Number Knowledge.” This statement was supported through daily evaluations and big book evidence that shows quality interactions that develop children’s numeracy development. We understand that numeracy includes a broad range of learning such as recognising symbols, understanding pattern and problem solving. For the sake of this enquiry, we want to focus on creating more numbers in the environment for the children to explore freely.

The enquiry was undertaken using observational methods, looking at numeracy within the setting. Using the findings to compare what works best in each area. Practitioners will observe children in the outdoors to identify children that may shy away from using numeracy resources often. Staff will use findings from these observations to create a small focus group. We will then again observe the small group to learn their interests and we will use these to develop their number knowledge. Practitioners decided to focus on number recognition for the purposes of this enquiry. Practitioners will observe the group at the beginning and end of the enquiry to compare the differences.

Questionnaires will be handed out to staff members during a team meeting to allow for staff’s opinions to be heard and if they had any concerns with the outdoor numeracy in the setting. We will feedback to staff during weekly team meetings.

We will feedback to parents and carers using pictures on social media to spark conversation between home learning and nursery. Parents and carers can also access their child’s observations in their personal learning profiles at pick up and drop off times.


Before sending the proposal, we met with the management to discuss the research project and how we would carry it out. We gave our manager a consent form that detailed permission for us to carry out this research.

Staff were informed of the research project during a team meeting verbally and were given a copy of the proposal to read over. They were given the option to complete the questionnaire and express any ideas.

Before carrying out focus group observations, permission was sought from the children’s parents through a form created by practitioners which outlined the objectives of the research and the dates it would be carried out. Parents were given the opportunity to view any observations throughout this project. During focus groups, children were asked if they wished to join in with the activity – giving children the opportunity to make their own decision on participation in line with the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) article 12 – respect for the views of the child (UNICEF, 1992). Anonymity was given to participants in the project in line with data protection laws. In line with child protection, if safeguarding issues arose during the research the child protection co-ordinator would be informed, and procedure would be followed.


During observation of numeracy in the indoor and outdoor, it was found that numeracy was explored more often in the indoor area. Resources such as Numicon and loose parts were used often by children and practitioners to extend numeracy experiences. We decided to take these items that were extensively used indoors and try them outdoors. Also, we identified a small group of children who did not engage regularly with numeracy in the outdoors.

When observing the identified children in the outdoor environment, it was found that children enjoyed using the natural resources such as sticks and sand. Child A said, “I found a stick to draw with.” Froebel often highlights the importance of natural resources in his writing. He talks about how nature is an active learning process so, we utilised this into our project and planned activities using natural materials (Bruce, 2021). We aimed for three activities a week focusing on number recognition. At the beginning of the project the participants did not recognise any numerals and after three weeks of the added resources being placed in the garden and activities being set up could recognise the numbers 1 and 2 with confidence. It was also observed that the children involved in the focus group were regularly engaging with the numeracy resources and were keen to show other practitioners and peers’ numbers in the environment. One child even leads their own number hunt with a small group of peers regularly. “I know it number 1!” Child B said.

After observing the outdoor area over the space of a week, we created a small numeracy area with exciting natural resources for the children to explore such as a wooden clock made from stones and a tree stump. Loose parts such as small stones, sticks and wooden discs were added to the area to encourage counting, shape/number creation, size comparisons and many more aspects of numeracy. These resources allow for the children to naturally develop their numeracy skills through exploration in accordance with Education Scotland’s early level curriculum (Education Scotland, 2010). It was found that there was a great interest in cars so, we created a racetrack and contacted the Council’s roads department to ask for road signs that we could use in the garden. We know that using resources such as the road signs will support the development of children’s number awareness within natural contexts and environments (Education Scotland, 2020). It has been observed that these added resources have made an impact on interest in numeracy. The children have an interest in games such as “hide and seek” so, large playground games have been played regularly and staff have been introducing other games such as “what’s the time Mr wolf” and “hopscotch.”

We had the opportunity to extend numeracy activities into our wider outdoor area which we refer to as “Tellytubby Land.” We used the sandpit to create shapes and numbers which encouraged conversation on identification and used chalk to create numbers in the surrounding environment. Practitioners found that when these activities were in the larger area, the children were limited on the space they could use for safety reasons which had to be closely monitored by an adult. Also, the resources such as colourful rocks and chalk could not be left out in the area because when the older children used the space the resources were going missing or were damaged.


In conclusion, the project has showed the importance of interest-based learning and natural resources. The engagement when the natural resources were put out increased and more ideas came from them such as creating shapes from sticks and fractions using shells. The small focus group made improvements in their number knowledge after just a few weeks so, we will continue to carry them out and will include other children of different ages and stages to improve numeracy development. Next, we will think about having storage boxes in our “Tellytubby Land” to keep our resources from being damaged and so that we are able to utilise the larger space for numeracy experiences. We will also consider using documents such as the Early Years numeracy toolkit (D&G Council, 2013) to support us whilst we continue to develop the outdoor areas.

Research implications

Beginning this project with the University of Edinburgh’s Froebelelian Futures team has allowed the setting to think deeply about our resources and training. We have taken staff, children and parent’s thoughts, views and feelings into consideration throughout this project to allow for equal opportunities. The staff had a team meeting where the project was introduced and each member of staff was given the chance to read through the research proposal. Staff were then given a questionnaire with the option to participate in line with the ethics of consent. The outcome was that all staff shared the same opinion of that the numeracy outdoors needed revamped to accommodate the interests of the children. Hearing our colleague’s opinions and ideas allowed us to create a mould for the changes that would take place. After observation, resources were created that accommodated the child’s interest, were age and stage appropriate and linked with the experiences and outcomes from the Curriculum for Excellence (2019). Staff are now able to access these resources easily in a shared space. We will continue to monitor the numeracy outdoors and will evaluate regularly – making any changes if necessary. Staff will encourage the use of loose parts and natural numeracy resources to be used in Tellytubby land. Moving forward we will be looking to collect more natural resources and will resource a storage box to keep the resources becoming worn and prevent damage as Tellytubby land is a shared space with the school. We will evaluate the changes made using the HGIOELCC (2016) document as a tool to support. It became apparent that staff felt confident in their ability to extend outdoor play after undertaking training in “Developing Number Knowledge” (2019). Posters from our Froebel in childhood practice course will be displayed for parents to view as well as leaflets that we will create showing the outcomes of this enquiry. A post on social media will also be added to showcase the children’s learning and development for parents to read at their leisure. We will be accessing the Froebel trust network to inspire ideas for the setting and to network and share our experiences with colleagues from afar.

Practitioner enquiry

Practitioner research has enabled us to create positive changes to our setting so, we place this research at a high value. This research has involved the whole setting and community sources which creates a sense of unity. Asking questions allows us to stay vigilant to any training requirements and developments needed in our setting. We hope to carry out inquiries more often and into different areas of play as it allows us to create positive experiences for the children. Moving forward we will use skills learned from this training to continue our research and to support colleagues to delve into their own research.

Leadership learning

Through this research programme, I have learned to take into account everyone’s thoughts, feelings and views with close consideration to the child’s voice. I have developed my leadership skills which will help me moving forward in my practice – increasing my confidence. Being a leader in this project has shown me the importance of meeting deadlines and supporting colleagues with research has allowed me to develop my problem solving skills. I will be able to use these new found skills going forward in my practice to continue to carry out research and support research in future.

Author and role

Anya Wright, Nursery Nurse

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Nikki Smith
    Nikki Smith
    31 May 2023 at 6:45 pm

    This is a good project looking at numeracy opportunities outdoors. The opportunities that children have been given to follow their interests, engage with natural materials and explore numeracy in other spaces has supported high quality learning experiences for your children.

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  2. Kirsty Maxwell
    Kirsty Maxwell
    01 Jun 2023 at 9:13 am

    I like your project very much Heather and think that this will extend beyond the remit of the Practitioner Inquiry. It has potential to impact on both practitioners and children within your setting creating opportunities for further breadth in learning. Well Done!

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  3. Rhona Wilson
    Rhona Wilson
    06 Jun 2023 at 1:04 pm

    It was interesting to read about the introduction of the natural resources (the clock in particular was a lovely idea!) and how it inspired the children to create their own learning experiences. An interesting future project might be a focus on the benefit of the ‘wide games’ you touched upon in your project (‘what’s the time Mr Wolf’ etc).

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  4. Ruth Johnson
    Ruth Johnson
    20 Jun 2023 at 5:05 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your project and the way you worked as a team-staff and children. Your children must have a great sense of ownership of your new numeracy outdoor area. Using simple natural materials to make maths come alive, like your natural clock could inspire your children to do something similar at home. I hope you continue to work on new ideas to inspire your nursery.

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