Following a pattern

Jenni Clarke
Friday, May 10, 2019

Identifying patterns in the natural and man-made worlds is a great way to develop an awareness of sequencing and basic geometry, as well as developing vocabulary and powers of observation.

Provide baskets of natural items such as stones, fir cones, sticks and leaves
Provide baskets of natural items such as stones, fir cones, sticks and leaves

Pattern awareness builds foundations for memorisation of the counting sequence, basic algebra, and basic geometry. Children who recognise patterns can then generalise pattern rules, understanding sequence, predictions and logic structure. Understanding aspects such as symmetry supports spatial thinking. Combine this with natural patterns, and children develop a deeper sense and awareness of the world around them, plus they are playing outside in the fresh air.

Pattern treasure hunt

If children are noticing natural patterns this is a great way to discover what they know, develop their vocabulary and encourage their powers of observation. Walk around with them, prompting recording of what they find. If they enjoy doing this in the outside area take them further, maybe through a field, woods or a garden. Challenge them to find different ways of recording what they see, discuss what they have discovered before organising the different patterns into groups. They may wish to return to these walks with more specific patterns and exploration in mind as they learn more about different types of patterns.

Shapes

A clipboard with 2D and 3D shapes to find and tally mark is an eye opener. Maybe children can tally mark in different colours for natural and man-made objects. What do they discover? Discuss their ideas for why circles are more common in nature than squares. Place a basket of stones next to a large puddle and I can guarantee children with throw them in, encourage them to notice what happens to the surface of the water: what shape does the stone make? Does a square object make square ripples?

Ask questions such as do all flowers have a circle in the centre of the petals? Are the circles in a tree stump the same width? Are all tree branches circular or are some tree branches cuboid like the wood on the woodworking table? What about flower stems?

Repeating patterns

Once they have noticed shapes can they see repeating patterns? Such as the patterns on animals, the wonderful hexagon repeating pattern, of honeycomb and paper wasp nests. How about the repeating pattern of petals? Or the scales on a fish, the layers of an onion, the segments of an orange? Provide plenty of opportunities for children to find and explore repeating patterns and encourage them to create their own.

Provide baskets of natural items such as stones, fir cones, sticks and leaves next to tree stumps or shapes defined by a line of sand, gravel, sawdust etc. Observe, talk about, think aloud as you fill your chosen shape with repeating patterns. Take photos of the transient land art for display and more discussion. Encourage more exploration by placing paint and paint rollers with piles of leaves and paper.

When children are interested in the texture and lines of tree bark encourage them to think of a way to record the bark and then decide if there is a pattern. They may take a photo or use paper and wax crayons to take a rubbing, they may use dough to make an impression and/or fill the impression with plaster.

Spirals

Spirals are one of nature's greatest mathematical patterns. It won't take long for the children to find spirals on snail shells, but where else can they see them? Petals, roses, fir cones, ferns spider webs. Look at them closley and see if they can see what all spirals do, start narrow and become thicker. Encourage the children to experiment with making spirals, can they create a huge one out of sticks, stones, etc. Can they make an enormous spider web between the trees or on a fence?


Expand their knowledge and inspire some awe and wonder by sharing images of tornadoes from above, spiral galaxies, curling waves and microscopic spirals magnified thousands of times.

Symmetry

At some stage children will notice how a beetle's two wing cases are patterned the same, how a butterfly's wings are the same, a mirror image. Explain the wonderful word ‘symmetry’ and how there are two types: reflective and rotational. These are lovely adult sounding and complex words which young children love to master and if you arm them with mirrored card and talk about a central line they can explore and discover symmetry in nature for themselves.

Explain the wonderful word ‘symmetry’ and how there are two types: reflective and rotational. These are lovely adult sounding and complex words which young children love to master.

It is not ethical to hold down a butterfly and test it for symmetry, but children can record which type of butterflies are in the garden and find pictures to test, or take their own photos for testing, with a mirror.

In the moment planning

Scenario for in the Moment Planning examples of how exploring natural patterns crosses curricular boundaries:

Natural patterns and EAD

The children were hunting for bees and ladybirds, talking about stripes and spots. One of them had spots on their socks and said it meant they were a ladybird. Another child drew some stripes on their hand and said they were a bee and buzzed around the setting. The adult encouraged them to think about other animals with spots and stripes and asked questions – such as would a giraffe with stripes be a tiger? The children liked this idea and looked at pictures of animals and then drew animals and gave them the wrong pattern, they made up a song about the patterns and animals and shared it with the other children at circle time.

Natural patterns and Understanding the World

Children had been exploring the flowers in the garden looking at the petals arranged in a pattern around a middle when one child asked ‘why?’ Why do the flowers have a middle? Why are they different colours? The adult encouraged the children to discuss and hypothesise before they read books and watched a short film about the relationship between insects and flowers.

They looked at similarities and difference between flowers in the garden and more exotic flowers from rainforests and their knowledge of the world expanded as they experimented with creating their own flowers and insects with patterns and symmetry.

Key points

  • Pattern awareness builds foundations for multiple maths skills
  • Spirals are one of nature's greatest mathematical patterns
  • Children who recognise patterns can then generalise pattern rules
  • Exploring natural patterns crosses curricular boundaries
  • When children notice natural patterns, a pattern hunt is a great way to discover what they know, develop their vocabulary and encourage their powers of observation

Useful resources

  • Access to nature
  • Clipboards, paper, mark making resources
  • Magnifying glasses
  • Mirrors
  • Camera
  • Pictures of natural patterns on a large scale
  • Books and stories about patterns
  • Cut branches, tree stumps, stones, pebbles, fir cones, etc.

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