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Nature play: Maths and optics

There are connections between all STEM topics, and all STEM topics can be explored and observed in nature. This makes nature the perfect playground for child-led research and discovery.


Encourage the children to look out for different shapes. You may be surprised by the number of shapes you can see formed by the branches of a tree or by the shadows on the ground.


flannel flower

Shape spotting often leads into exploring other mathematical concepts. Looking at a flannel flower, you can discuss symmetry. Once the children have spotted its reflection symmetry, you can discuss how many lines of symmetry it has. Can we draw one? How many petals does it have? Are they always the same number? 

The flower also presents a great opportunity to look into different types of symmetry: What if we rotate the flower? How many times does it ‘fit into’ itself?

You can then go on to spot symmetry elsewhere, in leaves for example. Some leaves don’t have a line of symmetry and others do. While examining leaves you may casually stroll from mathematics into optics observations.

Light and colour


Some leaves let light through as you hold them up and others don’t. Are they always green? New gum leaves are often red. Why is this? Look at the light they get. Are understorey leaves a different colour to those at treetops?

Some trees lose their leaves, others lose their bark. Why?

Start a conversation with the children. Maybe they want to conduct a leaf investigation. They can compare colours and shapes. Discuss symmetry and the patterns in the veins. Do all leaves have a central vein? Are leaves different colours in different light conditions? What do the children think?

Why not go out on a stroll today, looking for shapes, patterns and colours? There is so much to explore, even if it’s just in the garden or the trees around your service.

Hayley Bates
Article author: Hayley Bates
National Certifications Coordinator

This passionate mathematician and former science teacher will inspire you with her enthusiasm for inquiry-based learning and her determination to provide high-quality hands-on and fun professional development.

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