26th September 2003 at 01:00
A school picnic provides a good opportunity for maths, says Margaret Sahin

A picnic at the beginning or end of the year is a treat for children and staff alike, and also an excellent vehicle for practical learning.

In my last school, a village primary, a local farmer let us use a secluded field with trees (for shade and emergency toilets) and a stream (the ultimate in water play), only 20 minutes walk away. A park or playing field (or school hall if it rains) would suffice. Preparing for the picnic was a serious and very mathematical business.

First, we listed all the sandwich fillings the children liked. They came out to the board in turns to make a tally for each filling (counting and data collecting). The three or four most popular fillings are brought on the day of the picnic for each child to prepare their own sandwiches (food technology, using tools safely, spreading, cutting). We also made mini-pizzas, and children could choose and arrange their own toppings (food technology, art). Pictures cut from magazines showing artistically designed pizzas can inspire the children and photos taken on the day preserve the results of their efforts.

Each maths group took on different picnic-related tasks. Some researched the most popular snack, crisps or drink, presenting their findings as colourful bar charts. Others investigated how pizzas (circles) and sandwiches (squares) could be cut into equal parts (division, halves, quarters).

There are lots of practical problems to be solved. If 12 children want sausage rolls and we provide two each, how many will we need? If each child were to have a quarter of a pizza, how many pizzas would we need? How many drinks do you think we can get from a bottle of lemonade? How many bottles should we buy? Tip out the contents of a large and small packet of Hula Hoops. How many portions can you get from each one? Which is the better value for money?

It's not just the sums or the answers that are important, but the "using and applying". How shall we work it out? Draw pictures, cut up paper, make marks, use known number facts?

Tasks can be allocated to small groups by ability and suddenly the plenary at the end is really meaningful as answers and strategies are compared. The children will be practising their speaking and listening skills as well as their mathematical ability.

The picnics have always been memorable, especially when it rained on the walk back (play clothes and wellies were essential). Parents and preschool children joined us. One parent loaded groundsheets, blankets, bags of wellies and food into her car and drove it as near as was possible to the site, which left us free to walk uncluttered.

The opportunities for imaginative play and scientific discovery (anyone remember nature walks?) are enormous. Photos of the event captioned by the children with pictures and "news" writing add to the visual maths, which can be displayed on a large picnic cloth on the wall. Go on, treat yourselves.

Margaret Sahin teaches at Bardwell Special School, Oxfordshire

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