Ahhhh Mathematics, the Universal Language

by | Sep 21, 2020

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature … If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.” ― Richard Feynmanc

It feels wonderful to breathe in the fresh air of nature as I enter into our home in the woods at Forest School. I have been a high school mathematics teacher for over 12 years and have become accustomed to learning taking place between four walls. All too often I longed for opportunities to authentically create relevant, every-day mathematical problems for my students to solve. Sometimes I was successful and other times not. Out in the woods, the sky’s the limit for such opportunities!

It was such a delight to see the children exploring and testing their limits this week. I was in awe of how mathematics organically occurred while they delved into the rope bridges. One learner asked if I thought the ropes could hold two pounds, to which I answered “Hmm, well how much do you think you weigh?”. He thought for a moment and said he was about 100 pounds. In order to give him a bit of perspective I told him how much I weighed and then how much my 6 year old son weighed, which is about 40 pounds. Another learner chimed in, “ I must be around 40 pounds then too!” The first learner agreed that he must also be around the same weight. He got up on the rope, looked at me, and smiled. I asked if he thought it could hold two pounds and he gave me an enthusiastic “YES!”. As the other learner climbed onto the rope she excitedly exclaimed, “It can hold two 40 pounds!” And once one more child climbed up onto the ropes they all agreed it could, in fact, hold three 40 pounds.

I nearly fell over in excitement that these learners’ problem solved in such a relevant manner that had them very much engaged, and determined to see their solutions through. These are the exact moments I search for as a teacher, and to see the children framing the problem themselves and applying the concepts of measurement, comparison, and multiplication was amazing!

The learning didn’t stop there. The children wanted to use the ropes to create a zip line, all the while problem solving on the best height and angle to set up their zip line (oh, hi there geometry). They carefully chose branches that could be used as handles to zip down their zip line (finding “y” shaped ones seemed to be a favorite). They considered the sturdiness of the branches they chose and if it could hold their weight.

The children really enjoyed this plan for zip lining. They were pushing their limits and climbing the tree from last week, going a little higher each time. Their determination to reach the zip line outweighed their fear of climbing the tree. One older boy had a fun way of getting down from the tree that led to another learner aptly naming it the “koala bear way.” This technique then became a new goal for all to achieve; seeing this method as an effective way to reach the ropes of the zip line. Math was all around us in the woods that day, as I feel it is every day. Teaching us and guiding us through this world.

In our second class this week, we learned about the three elements of fire:

  1. AIR,
  2. FUEL and
  3. a SPARK.

fire circle making fireWe focused on the first element of fire, a spark, and two ways to create it. One way to create the spark was by using a match, and the other by using a fire steel and throwing sparks. The learners worked together to co-create the fire and agreed upon the fire safety rules. We emphasized the importance of the process over the product to allow the learners time to build up to a fire. A fire might not always happen and that is ok.

We shared stories and worries together over the fire, seeing this space as a comfortable, safe environment. These chances to open up to each other help create a sense of community among our learners.

Our learners will each have a chance to be a fire keeper (appointed keepers of the fire’s energy) when we gather around the fire. It will be exciting to see the fire grow as the learners grow throughout this season!


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