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Your number's up

Trails can lead pupils on a journey through many aspects of maths, says Jenny Houssart.

To everything there is a season. The first trundle wheel of the spring has long since been sighted, and the SATs will soon be over. Now is the time to hit the maths trail.

Maths trails come in all shapes and sizes. Typically, they consist of a series of instructions requiring pupils to follow a particular route and answer questions about things they see on the way. Using the language favoured by senior political figures, this could be called a "bog-standard maths trail". Such a trail has many advantages, one of them being variety. You can ask a mix of questions involving shape, measures and number, depending on what is in the locality and what is appropriate for your class.

If you are looking for something slightly different, maybe the "one-stop maths trail" is for you. In this case, all the questions centre on one place. It may be a building such as a church or a shopping centre, or part of a playground or park. If your adult-child ratio and your blood pressure are up to it, a car park can lead to work on area and data-handling. One-stop trails often lend themselves to links with other areas of the curriculum and may enhance pupils' understanding of the environment or contribute to a local history study.

A further possibility is the "single-issue maths trail", where you focus on one aspect of maths, but look in a variety of places. The aim of the trail might, for example, be to identify and perhaps draw 2-D or 3-D shapes found in different places. Alternatively, your trail might focus on a particular aspect of shape, such as symmetry or tessellation. Other themes could be measuring or estimating distances, including the height of trees and buildings if you are feeling adventurous.

Sometimes the purpose of a trail is to use the language of direction and distance. In this case the emphasis might be on following the directions from place to place, with relatively simple questions r tasks on the way.

Hopefully, pupils' direction-finding skills will not be found wanting and everyone will get back to school safely. This is not always the end of the story though, as a good maths trail can provide plenty of data for discussion and follow-up work. For example, rough drawings or rubbings brought back may lead to more accurate drawings to enhance a topic such as symmetry. Measurements might be used for scale drawings. Data about plant types or traffic frequency can be presented in a variety of ways.

Shape and space

* Ask children to look for particular shapes and list where they find them, or name buildings or objects and ask children which shapes they can identify there.

* Look for symmetry, for example in leaves, road signs, buildings or the wheels of cars.

* Look for tessellations in walls or floors and take rubbings of patterned surfaces.


* Measure distances in paces, paving stones or standard units.

* Ask pupils to estimate or measure the length, width or area of objects, buildings or spaces along the route.

* Use a variety of methods for finding the height of buildings or trees. Compare different methods.


* Survey the wildlife in a small space. For example, see what grows in one metre of hedgerow, or put a PE hoop on the ground and see what is within the ring.

* Investigate the number and type of vehicles in a car park or passing a certain point in a given time limit.

* Survey particular types of house or shop in a given area.


* Estimate and then count numbers of objects such as flowers in a flower bed, shops in a street, bricks in a wall.

* Use information on gravestones or memorials to calculate what age people reached, or how long ago they died.

* Look for opening and closing times on shops and calculate how long they are open each day.

Jenny Houssart is a research fellow at the Centre for Mathematics Education, at the Open University

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