How Cross-Curricular Learning Can Bring Math To Life For Elementary School Students

While schools grapple with their new curriculums, let’s not forget the value that cross curricular learning can bring to the elementary school classroom.

Suddenly you’ll find you can fit much more math into the elementary school day – and develop greater opportunities for everyday math reasoning and problem solving. You’ll be amazed how quickly your students will pick up new skills and knowledge!

Life in elementary school is, more often than not, extremely busy. Even some simple, quick math demonstrates just how much elementary teachers have to fit in an extremely limited timeframe:

  • We begin the week with just twenty-seven and a half hours of teaching time, which is little more than a full day each week.
  • The first thing we have to account for is break times (about an hour and 15 minutes per week?). Total teaching time left: 26.25 hours.
  • Then, obviously depending on the year group; we have to figure out how we can squeeze in a couple of hours for literacy and math every day (that’s 10 hours at least), half an hour of some sort of structured reading activity (an additional 2 ½ hours), and we can’t forget about recess (say, 2 hours). Total teaching time left: 11.75 hours
  • Then there’s science – in my mind that needs at least two to three hours… Where are we up to? Ok, the total teaching time left: 8.75 hours…
  • Then we have language, probably an hour, right? Then, P.E., art, design and technology, computing, have I forgotten something? Oh yes… history and geography, then there’s the social and emotional learning… oh, and music… Have we had an assembly or our morning meeting? No… Total teaching time left: We’ve run out of time!

Locking-In The Learning – How To Avoid Running Out Of Teaching Time

Ok, so it’s clear that this approach to curriculum design won’t work, and to be honest, I’m not sure we should try to make it work. 

Subjects taught in isolation and discreetly are not truly indicative of ‘real life’, and ‘real life’ learning is what helps children to learn.

How often in our daily lives do we do all of our learning separately?

I can’t remember a time that I considered reading, traveling, practicing language skills, trying new foods, exercise (usually swimming), all to be individual elements of a vacation.

In the same way, if we teach mathematics (or any other relevant elementary topic), alongside a practical programming problem, then we’ve not only doubled the time we can dedicate to the collective learning against individual lessons, but we’ve multiplied the value of that time by making those cross-curricular links too.

What Is Cross-Curricular Learning?

Cross-curricular learning is a way to combine different school subjects to deliver a curriculum that children find engaging and enjoyable. It has particular pertinence at elementary school where so often as the teacher you are the person teaching most if not all of the subjects. It is also referred to as cross-curricular teaching. 

When used in the right manner, the benefits of cross-curricular learning are noticeable immediately. It offers a way for students to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding and become motivated to learn through a series of interconnected topics.

How To Bring Cross-Curricular Learning Into The Elementary Classroom

For teachers, cross-curricular learning presents the opportunity to combine learning objectives from different elementary school subjects into one lesson, and, as well as being a time-saving device, it is a great way to ensure engagement for students.

However, if you are planning to implement cross-curricular learning in your classroom, here’s what you need to remember:

Make meaningful links between topics – When bringing two subjects together, make sure that the links you are making are real and not contrived. It is important to bear in mind whether or not the links will make sense to the students as well, because if they do not, then engagement levels will likely drop.

For example, if you are running an art lesson, you could work on the tessellation of shapes when creating a mosaic as it incorporates both math and art.

Ensure coherence in the lesson – Cross-curricular learning has the potential to get a little overwhelming for students if there is not a particular focus. When planning a cross-curricular lesson, you should make sure that there are only one or two lead subjects, which form the framework from which you build the lesson.

Record different subject objectives – Even though you are bringing two (or more) potentially very different subjects together, it is important that you map the learning objectives for each separate subject that will be included in the lesson. This is the only way you will be able to measure your coverage of the required curriculum.

Progress and application are different – While getting a student to measure the width of a river on a school trip may combine elements of geography, science and math, this activity is not going to see their mathematics skills move leaps and bounds, as it is a relatively simple task.

However, what it will do is present them with the opportunity to apply and use their math knowledge and skills in a real life context,  which is invaluable.

It is also worth remembering when planning your cross-curricular lessons that they are a fantastic way to improve and monitor the ‘soft-skills’ in your class, whether that be confidence, attitude, enjoyment or the value they place on learning.

Why Cross-Curricular Learning Is Important in Elementary Math

It’s not an easy feat creating meaningful and constructive interlocking learning opportunities, but we aim for these to be the ones that children remember. By definition, this makes the opportunity for learning to be ‘deep learning’, and let’s face it, whoever said their most memorable lesson was worksheet-based?

Often perceived by students as one of the more difficult elements of the elementary curriculum they will face, math can be a hard subject to grab the attention of the whole class.

Maths and science cross curricular
Students from my class, enjoying some cross-curricular math!

Fortunately though, this is where you can use cross-curricular learning to bring this subject to life.

I’m always flying the math flag, and when planning any other subject I can’t help but let my mind drift towards opportunities to integrate math. While I accept I’m perhaps in the minority, I find weaving ‘real life’ or everyday math into other curriculum areas the most natural thing in the world!

So, to provide you with some inspiration for your class, I am going to run you through some of the ways I have brought everyday math into my cross-curricular lessons!

Further Reading:

Looking for more ideas for cross-curricular lessons and bringing everyday math to life? 

Cross Curricular Learning Example 2: RSPB Big Schools Birdwatch Math

Another favorite of mine is the annual RSPB Big Schools Birdwatch, or as I see it being renamed, The Greatest Opportunity For Data Collection, Analysis and Comparison Ever Gifted to Teachers.

In the UK, this is a day for students to observe birds that are migrating through the country. The US is a much bigger place, and these events may happen at different times of the year, with different birds.

You can find events similar to this, that are happening near your location. You can adapt the activities based on the event you are using!

Birds watching cross curricular maths lesson
One Whole Birdwatch math in action

You may have a point if you say the title isn’t quite as catchy as the original, but really, it would describe the opportunity perfectly.

students bird watching cross curricular math
Knowing your Robin from your Raven can be useful in multiple elementary school topics.

I have previously used the Big Schools Birdwatch as an opportunity to:

  • Explore data handling;
  • practice the use of data presentation software;
  • introduce first-hand exploration of habitats.

We have also realized it is the perfect way to introduce fractions (good to start with tenths), when we make a slight adaptation to the title to ‘One Whole Birdwatch’ – requiring children to observe and note the first ten birds they see, and explore different ways to represent that data set.

Cross Curricular Learning Example 3: 2nd and 3rd Grade Travel Assistants Role Play

As a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher, a role play task would be set each week, usually linked to the guided reading theme, or an aspect of the curriculum.

The class was a mixed-age class of 29, 2nd and 3rd grade students with predominantly ‘not on-grade level’ performers. This week, I told the children that they worked for a local travel-tour agency. They were to act as booking clerks and complete telephone booking forms within the role play area.

It is amazing how children will find all kinds of problem solving interesting if it is pitched in the right way!

I then gave children time to role play the scenario and complete the forms which detailed; customer details, date of the trip, the number of people traveling, where they were traveling to/from, special requests etc.

As you can already see, the ‘checklist’ of curriculum objectives is already extensive!

Everyday Math At Work In Their Group Activity

Once we had completed a good selection of enquiry forms, I then organized the children into small groups and gave the groups differentiated tour details and costs, a large map of the local area, some highlighters, sticky dots, and an iPad with Route Planner loaded up!

Teamwork cross curricular math

The children had to then:

  • Use the booking forms to calculate how many charter busses would be needed for the given customers;
  • work out the length of the journey;
  • calculate the cost of fuel based on consumption;
  • calculate the cost of journey based on basic mileage costs;
  • locate the start and end points on a map;
  • had to call back the customer and give costs and a rationale that explained how the costs had been compiled!

Nobody ever said the life of a tour booking clerk was an easy one!

Cross Curricular Learning Example 4: Using Stories To Support & Enable High-Order Questioning in Math

My final example of the way in which math can be ‘locked-in’, is through the use of stories to tap into the emotional response that children naturally present, to the subject matter.

With a story, we don’t have to ‘fake’ the scenario, the children have already conjured images in their minds from what has been read, so the job of creating a series of hypothetical stories is not actually needed.

I find that picture books work very well in creating an opportunity for children to feel quickly relaxed with the topic, and able to talk about their own thoughts and feelings around this (which sounds awfully like reasoning to me!).

Everyday Math from Handa’s Surprise

Our first whole school story focus this year (Pre-K to 5th grade)was Handa’s Surprise, a beautiful story with vibrant illustrations, very simple concepts, and an opportunity to get out the atlases, talk about the setting, and maybe taste the fruits…

Handa’s Surprise, a beautiful story with vibrant illustrations

The opportunities are endless!

Where math is concerned, we had a full week of basing our mathematical learning on this Handa’s Surprise.

The everyday math activities we did ranged from a math trail outdoors for 4th and 5th grade, focusing on fractions, decimals and percentages, to telling mathematical stories in Pre-K, through to number bonds for Kindergarten and 1st grade.

Everyday Math from Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch

We have also recently used the Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch to:

  • Solve problems involving angles (well, actually they were the beams of light from the lighthouse) in 4th grade
  • double and halve the number of sandwiches in Reception;
  • have a balanced argument about if Mr. Grinling was fair in his approach to stopping the seagulls eating his lunch in our assemblies.

Whether you use stories, news feeds or local businesses, there are always exciting and fun ways in which problem solving and reasoning can be brought to life, and when this happens, the learning is magnified.

Let Your Students Discover the Cross Curricular Learning Inspiration 

I have always been surprised by the ideas that children come up with, so if you are reading something in class, why not ask them how they could link a picture book to your current math topic?

They often think much more laterally than me, picking up obvious links, and always highlighting something current that they are interested in.

From there, I take out my question stems linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy, and make sure I use lots of the higher-order questions, think analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

I have found that the more attractive the ‘hook’, the deeper the questioning can go, and the greater the impact on the other side of the desk.

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The content in this article was originally written by headteacher Kerry Dalton and has since been revised and adapted for US schools by elementary math teacher Christi Kulesza.


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The pack includes 4 separate worksheets for each grade, with different games aimed at helping students with the transition into the next grade.