When Maths Appears in the Caring Task of Weeding

Under a small stand of Karri and Marri trees, positioned between the road and the school carpark, a group of year 3 and 4 students are snipping Watsonia stems and collecting the seeds (cormels) into a bucket. Watsonia is a weed here and covers this small patch of bush, smothering many of the smaller native plants.

I have the privilege of consulting for a week at Kwoorabup Nature School in Denmark, on the south west coast of Western Australia. My aim is to inspire and support educators to extend and enrich learning. Encouraging integration of the experiences from their weekly day in nature, known as Walkabout Day, into the rest of the week is one area we will explore.

Kwoorabup Nature School is unique in that each class from pre-primary to year 6, spends one day per week exploring nature surrounding the school with their class teacher and a specialised nature educator.

On arrival at school, the students were set a challenge to collect as many seeds as possible without dropping any on the ground. Working in pairs they use secateurs and each spot when seeds drop on the ground. Olly, the Walkabout outdoor educator, gently reminds the group to be mindful of not helping the Watsonia spread. A group of boys opt to use a pitchfork to pry out the corms (bulbs). Then, they shake out the dirt into the same spot so as not to spread them. Corms are placed into two large hessian sacks – these are treasured items that will soon be repurposed.


In the Karri forest across the road, near part of the Bibblumum Track, lies a magical and imaginative village the children named Sparksville. In Sparksville, the children have created a number of stick huts under the Peppermint and Marri trees. Behind the cubbies near a mound of gravel still evident from the old gravel pit is the ‘mine’. This is where Watsonia bulbs are collected and taken to the ‘bank’ or ‘mint’ where they are processed into different forms of currency. The laced outer fibres are broken off to reveal the smooth exposed golden corm beneath. These are the ‘diamonds’. Occasionally, smooth corms are found with reddish hues and these are ‘rubies’ and one of the most valuable pieces. The ‘coins’ that grow beneath the corm are brown round discs which come in various sizes. In previous games, the larger coins have held a value of 10 and the smaller ones had a value of 2.

The Count

It is time to gather for a morning break. The students are eager determine the champions of the collection, so the priority of the gathering is to count seeds. Buckets of seeds are tipped on the mat ready to count back into the bucket. There are a lot of seeds in the buckets! Elaine, one of the classroom educators, asks students to look at their pile and predict how many seeds they have before initiating the count. The students count mostly by one and some by two to get the counting done faster. A couple of children get slightly frustrated at losing count after about 40 or so when they have to tip them out and start again. The educators use this opportunity to provide suggestions; “We could track the counting with a tally”, or “We could group the seeds in piles of 10 first”. The students take on these ideas and then start to add their own, “When we get 10 piles of 10, we can put the 100 in the bucket”.

I called out to another educator, “Hey Rosie, over here we are making groups of 10.” Rosie took the opportunity to facilitate an informal sharing between groups of the different strategies used to segregate and track the numbers counted so far. One group placed a leaf beside the bucket every time they put in 10 seeds. This gave another student the idea to mark every 100 in the bucket with a leaf. When the collection became low after 300 seeds were in the bucket, he suggested using sticks to mark 10 in the bucket and pieces of bracken fern to mark ones. This idea was celebrated. After he finished, the student challenged Olly to guess how many seeds he had in the bucket. When Olly guessed wrong he pointed to the leaves, “300,” said Olly, “Yes,”, then the student pointed at the sticks “60” he nodded, “And this must mean 4,” said Olly pointing to the fern. “Three hundred and sixty four.” “Yes, you guessed it!” “These leaves, sticks and bracken laid out made it so easy for me to ‘see’ what you have in your bucket,” said Rosie.

Inspiring Classroom Connection

While the students had something to eat and drink, Olly, Rosie and Elaine spoke excitedly about what they had observed and possibilities to extend the spontaneous maths activity further in the classroom. They spoke of taking the seeds back and even bringing some corms into the classroom. They brainstormed ways these natural materials could be used to further investigate counting large numbers, segregating in groups and using place value.

Wondering, Prediction and Real-world Application

When the group gathered again, there was conversation about how the nearby creek had been transformed over time by the students. We spoke about how the work they were doing will change the bush space. The students shared how they thought that less Watsonia will grow back now they have collected so many seeds. They discussed the impact of the Watsonia and how it had invaded the space and stopped other plants growing. We wondered what the place may look like in a few years if they kept caring for the bush by collecting seeds and corms.

The group then shared how close their seed count predictions were and what strategies were used to keep count. Olly and I finished the conversation by sharing how we had, as adults, used counting of large numbers through transects and tallies to assess the success of rehabilitation projects in which we’d been involved.

Educator Reflections

After a day exploring Sparksville and other places outside the classroom, the educators, myself, and Principal Jo Griffith sat down to debrief on the day. Strategic conversations emerged about where to follow up activities within the timetable, selecting lines of enquiry when there are so many possibilities, how to make space for in-depth inquiry and a feeling of timelessness, and focusing on skills that can be transferred to other learning areas. The group shared how the energy of the students, connection to their play, caring for Boodjar, learning about the environment, the importance of numeracy for the group and how the skills involved are ones that are needed to support future learning made the place value inquiry of the Watsonia the most important out of all the amazing possibilities which arose from the day. There are many future opportunities to extend the Watsonia maths investigation to look at multiplying and dividing large numbers, especially teaching long division, mapping spaces and collecting and displaying data. Looking through the curriculum many other integrated learning areas in Science and HASS would also naturally be a part of the investigation.

Consultancy work often occurs working alongside other educators, asking questions, facilitating discussion and reflecting what has been observed from a different perspective. This spontaneous maths lesson was not planned and felt easy, natural and a form of play.

Kwoorabup Nature School is a small independent school in Denmark, Western Australia. It started out as the school, Spirit of Play, which developed its culture around play-based and child-led learning. Surrounding the school is magnificent Karri forest, river and the Wilson Inlet. The school values the nature that surrounds them and commits time for each class to spend a whole day per week outdoors in these surrounds, with the guidance of a specialised educator. The outdoor spaces around their classrooms are also inviting and educators use outdoor spaces at other times of the week for learning in addition to the Walk About Day. Nyoongar language and culture is integrated throughout the school, the six Nyoongar seasons are acknowledged in the programming of the Walkabout sessions and Caring for Boodjar is an important aspect of everything they do. This school is unique in its commitment to the amount of time learning outdoors as well as the time to follow the needs of the children which, in our opinion, creates a peaceful and joyful school experience.

Discover more about Educated by Nature’s Consultancy Service and Nature Connection Series on our website.