Outdoor maths activity with homemade scales

This outdoor maths activity has boundless opportunities for exploration and extensions. Starting from a simple set of homemade scales, children are able to expand their ideas of measurement using a range of outdoor resources.
What you will need:

  • A sturdy wooden coat hanger, like these
  • String, restock here
  • At least 2 bowls with handles - these "balti dishes" work perfectly
  • A range of fruits and vegetables
  • A chopping board and knife

Preparing the activity

To create your outdoor scales, hang a coat hanger from a nail somewhere outside. Make sure it is suspended low enough for the children to be able to reach. The coat hanger needs to be able to pivot, so don't hang it too close to a wall. Loop a length of string through the apex at each end of the coat hanger, and then tie each end to a bowl handle. You should end up with a rudimentary set of scales, to compare the weight of items in each bowl.

Doing the activity:

Gather a group of children together around the scales. Demonstrate how they work by placing some different items in each bowl. Be sure to model the language of measurement, "heavy", "light", "heaviest" etc. Now comes the time to get the children excited about exploring and investigating. How you approach this outdoor maths activity will depend on the ages of the children involved.

22 - 36 months

With a group of this age, you are likely to need to support their learning quite intensively. All together, go on an adventure around the outdoor area with a bucket, searching for interesting items. Once you've found a range of different objects, return to your scales and start investigating which are heavy and which are light.

30 - 50 months

Children in this age group should be able to engage in this activity more independently. Try challenging the children to find objects which are heavier or lighter than everyday items they are familiar with. For example, place an apple into one of the scale bowls, and challenge the children to go and find something heavier than an apple in the garden. Support the children to understand that they can use the scales to test the objects they find.

Extending the activity further

This activity can be extended to introduce some basic themes around fractions for the oldest children in your setting. Having tried the idea above a few times, show the children how you cut the apple in half. Extend their understanding of weight and measurement by challenging them to find an object which is heavier than half an apple, but lighter than a whole apple. A further extension can be added by encouraging children to keep a record of their discoveries by drawing pictures of the scales holding different objects.

Tracking the activity:

22 - 36 months

Mathematics, Numbers; "Begins to make comparisons between quantities"

30 - 50 months

Mathematics, Numbers; "Using some number name and number language spontaneously"

Mathematics, Shape, Space & Measurement; "Uses positional language"

40 - 60+ months

Mathematics, Shape, Space & Measurement; "Orders 2 objects by weight or capacity"

Mathematics, Numbers; "Uses the language of 'more' and 'fewer' to compare 2 sets of objects"

Mathematics, Numbers; "Records, using marks that they can interpret and explain"

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