If We Chop Down This Tree, Will We Kill Our Librarian? Authentic Opportunities For Taking Measurement Outdoors

I think I can count on one hand the number of times that, as an adult, I have needed to measure a shape that is printed on a piece of paper. Research tells us that authentic learning experiences are the way forward. It suggests that enabling learners to put their skills and knowledge to practical use in a situation where the outcome has a tangible relevance to their own lives, results in far greater retention of knowledge. It’s time to get authentic with measurement. Don’t panic! The great news is that out of all of the ways to learn mathematical concepts in an outdoor environment, measurement is one of the easiest places to start. Here are six ways, which can be adapted to suit your setting, for taking measurement outdoors in an authentic way. 

Pose a Problem

If we chop down this tree, will we kill our librarian? What do we need to calculate to make sure that Mr Crouch will be ok? Hopefully, the students will figure out that they need to measure the height of the tree and also the distance between the school building and the base of the tree. You can then use “10 ways to measure a tree” from OutdoorClassroomDay.org.uk to help you calculate your librarian’s life expectancy. With older students, and if you really want to really get into it, you could bring in some trigonometry and have the conversation about how the top of the school building is further away than the base because the hypotenuse of the triangle is longer than its base… blah, blah, maths, maths.

No librarians were harmed in the writing of this blog.

Make Stuff

Not many things give students more motivation to improve their measuring accuracy than having a hands-on project to work on. From bamboo panpipes and birdhouses to wooden spinners and raised beds. It doesn’t really matter what you create as long as you prepare yourself to make the most of the activity through the lens of measurement. Using the phrase “measure twice, cut once” is useful when encouraging students to focus on their accuracy.

Find a Purpose

Recently, we were contacted by another international school who are in the process of developing their outdoor learning space. They wanted to know the height of our tables and also the size of our student-friendly rakes. What followed was a task for our 2nd grade students where they had to measure and record a variety of objects in our space. Sometimes in centimetres, sometimes metres and sometimes a mixture of the two. Everything was measured, from the height of bushes to the length and width of our entire space. Some students even moved onto finding the perimeter of the planters in our vegetable garden. It’s safe to say that the inquiring international school received slightly more information back than they asked for. In summary, find a task that has an authentic purpose and see where it takes you!

Magic Number

Using a thermometer in your outdoor space (insert reading scales discussion here if necessary), find the day’s temperature to the nearest degree in celsius. This is your magic number. Send your students out into the space armed with measuring tools and challenge them to find objects that are the same length in centimetres as the magic number. For example, if the day’s temperature is 7 degrees, students are looking for objects that have a dimension of 7cm. This can be a very different task depending on the season. If you’re in a country which favours fahrenheit over celsius, then it’s going to look very different again.

This activity is one of our favourites because it offers a switch around in the focus of measurement. Instead of measuring one object to find its length, students need to measure lots of objects in their search for the elusive magic number. Use it as a starter and extend it as you wish.

Plant Things

Here’s an idea for those among us who have higher OCD tendencies. Incorporate measurement into whatever you’re planting and the result can be a wonderfully ordered vegetable bed or flower garden. This year, we spaced our tulip bulbs 10cm apart. Unfortunately, with all of our students being at home during Covid-19 lockdown, the closest they got to their beautifully spaced flowers was seeing a picture of them!

Measuring can also come into play when comparing the height of growth. This came in particularly handy during the aforementioned lockdown. Those of you who read the blog post about our Home Learning a couple of weeks ago will know that we sent bean seeds home when everything kicked off a couple of months. Keeping track of growth and comparing this during our ZOOM meetings has been part of our Home Learning process.

Get Your Game Face on

In a similar way to making projects, measurement can be found in a whole host of different games. We have some tyres lying around as loose parts which we use to play a boules-type game. Standing behind a start line, players throw or roll their tyre to try and make it finish closest to the jack or marker. The measurement aspect comes in when it’s too close to call. This can be a good opportunity to discuss standard versus non-standard units. If you’re going to wind students up by suggesting that certain players are “false measuring” to try and win, be sure to appoint a referee whose decision is final. This is a great technique to encourage accuracy, checking and rechecking measurements.


So there you have it, six ways to incorporate measurement into your outdoor space. The bottom line is that measurement can be found in almost anything you’re doing, so just be aware and don’t miss the learning opportunities! And if you do miss them, give yourself a break and catch them next time! Stay safe and stay healthy.

A Beginners Guide to Art in Nature

Art in Nature. Land Art. Transient Art. Call it whatever you like. Taking learning outdoors using art as your vehicle can be an awesome place to start. The following pretty much makes up a unit of inquiry that happens with our Grade 2 students at the beginning of the school year. Comment below with other ideas you have, let’s get this sharing started!

1) Rainbow chips

A lovely way to get started is to use a Joseph Cornell activity called Rainbow Chips. This is basically a colour hunt where students are provided with coloured objects and their goal is to explore the space to try and locate that colour. When they find it they find it, switch for another colour and so on and so forth. Some people use colourful bits of broken pottery for this, colourful gems also work. Our favourite is to nip down the the local DIY shop and liberate a whole load of paint colour samples (ninja skills/confidence required). Up to you, whatever you can find.

Liberated paint sample cards

2) Start the conversations

Colour is an element of art. When we look at a piece of art, colour is something that we can comment on. At this point, we might whip out a classic Goldsworthy print and try to identify some colours. Enter stage right, the other elements of art. Value, texture, shape, line, form, space, & perspective. The opportunities for developing language and vocabulary here are boundless. Introduce in whichever way suits your style but be sure allow time for students to explore the outdoor space to find examples of each thing. At this point, our students are collecting what they find using Book Creator.

Using Book Creator to collect examples of space

At the end, bring back your Goldsworthy (or other) and see if students can comment on and give their opinion, linking in to their shiny new ‘Elements of Art’ vocabulary.

3) Get inspired

Start talking about transient art in any school and you’ll get… “Land Art? Have you looked into Andy Goldsworthy?” And of course, being the grandfather of the scene, his stuff is the bomb. He’s got plenty of books out there but there is also a range of things on Youtube, like this and this, that are good for inspiration. Andy is great, but please don’t stop there! Marc Pouyet’s books (especially this one) are also an excellent source of imagination kickstarters. Even a quick search for #landart on Twitter will open up a whole load of other folk who are doing some pretty cool stuff too. People like @RFjamesUK, @escher303, @TimPughArtist and @LandArtforKids are a selection of our favourites.

4) Create

Give it a go. Crack on. Go outside and create. Depending on resources that you have available, you might want to restrict the amount of materials, or not. We advocate the old “No Pick, No Lick” as a general rule in our Outdoor Learning space. Not because we don’t like fun. Because we find that if every 2nd grader decides that they want to use those leaves from that bush, then we end up with pretty naked shrubbery.

While creating, encourage students to make conscious choices as artists. Why have they chosen that location? Have they notice the texture of the rocks that they’re using? What can they tell you about the value in the acorns that they’re arranging in that circle?

Creating can occur multiple times, of course. To mix it up a little we’ve found it interesting to challenge our artists to use only one type of object. For example, only conkers or only oak leaves.

The abstract discussion is an excellent way to add depth to an Art in Nature session. Does our artwork need to be something? Can we leave it open to interpretation? Do we find the abstract discussion is accessible to all 2nd graders? Absolutely not. Sometimes, your artwork just needs to be a house with a pool. Sometimes, you just need to sit in a patch of sun a lick a rock.

5) Focus on one thing

If you have students that are not sure where to start, encourage them to focus on one element of art in particular. Shape, perhaps. Our old friend Andy G loves a good circle. Why not try some different shapes? Shapes within shapes? Lots of the same shape? Regular shapes? Irregular shapes? Is an oak leaf a shape? Shapes.

6) Gravity Glue

Michael Grab, or Gravity Glue as he’s better know, is a wonderful way to segue into something a little different. Check out the video below. Rock balancing can result in a calm and relaxing flow state, enhanced by deep concentration (closely followed by infuriation as the whole thing falls on your toe). Fun fact: rock balancing championships are a thing.

Gravity Glue

Alternatively, find out what an Inuksuk is, and give one of those a go!

7) Go for a walk

Inspiration can come from anywhere and anything. We like to head off down to our local section of the Rhine. In the past, inspiration has come from cool things that we’ve seen en route and also the beautiful location when we get there. If nothing else, we find that a change in location offers copious amounts of new materials and more space than our regular Outdoor Learning locale. Where could you go?

Our local stretch of the Rhine River. It looks worse in the rain.

8) Get inspired… again…

Are musicians artists? So, if we bash together a rock and a stick, are we creating art? Experiment with different ways of playing objects that you can find in your outdoor space. How many different ways can you play your log? Try making a thunderstorm. Everybody grabs their favourite noise maker, one person conducts and sets the dynamics.

Music from Nature – Diego Stocco

If you’re lucky enough to have access to devices which support GarageBand (a wonderful tech-integration team helps too), then have a go at creating some Diego Stocco inspired compositions. This is cool stuff, make no mistake. It’s also pretty difficult to get the end result sounding anything like Diego, but the process can be awesome.

9) Don’t forget to look up

Who doesn’t fancy spending time laid out on the grass looking up at the white fluffy things? This is great for our line of inquiry which considers people responding differently to same stimuli. Not possible everyday so you have to pick your day. An easy way in is this book. Get outside and lie on the ground.

10) Share

Whether you host an exhibition for family and friends, post photos on Twitter and Instagram or just leave your artwork for the random public out walking their dogs; sharing your work is a must. Get students to prepare a blurb for their creations, linking back to elements of art and their inspirations. In our parent exhibition, students stand by their piece and explain their choices as artists, but these could be written also. If you’re posting on social media, remember to connect with the people that inspired you!

PYP Blurb