The idea that literacy learning begins at birth is widely accepted in the field of early childhood. In fact, literacy programs are mandated by state and federal agencies in Head Start programs. What many people don’t realize, however, is that infants, toddlers and preschoolers are also learning math from everything around them – most importantly from music! From birth to the age of five, young children may not be able to add or subtract or use other formal mathematics the way an older child would, but their interaction with a stimulating environment leads them to build the basics of math even without direct teaching.  How can a child learn without being taught?  Well, it is the way the human mind is designed.  When a child uses their own ability to learn and think about their surroundings, they naturally begin to build an understanding of mathematics.

Math and Music

One of the best and most effective tools to promote this early mathematical thinking is through the use of music and musical activities in the classroom.  However, it is not necessary to use songs to teach specific skills such as counting or addition.  In fact, research suggests that these practices may even get in the way of the child’s own thinking process.  Instead, teachers need to look at how music affects children and how the basic elements of music, such as the beat, rhythm and patterns within the melody or words,  can stimulate mathematical growth in areas such as spatial reasoning, sequencing, counting, patterning, and one-to-one correspondence.

Take for example, the song “BINGO” (which contains a pretty elaborate patterning activity and even some counting).  Think about how children replace the letter of the name with a clap in each round of the song.  Think about the relationship that a child makes when they have to complete that simple task, and think about how music helps to scaffold that ability.  Additionally, music is an activity that children frequently will spontaneously and independently sing during free time.  We have seen children singing “BINGO” and counting their claps while playing on the playground.

Teachers, without realizing it, may already be using some of the elements of music in their everyday interactions with children.  For example, elements of rhythm are one of the ways to make predictable books, predictable.  Children can anticipate the rhythmic pattern and that helps them to remember the words to a familiar story.  Another example is patterning activities.  Preschools and Kindergartens are rife with manipulatives that support interaction with objects and patterning.  However, the very first patterning activity that a child encounters is musical.  When a parent or teacher comforts a crying child they may pat, rock or bounce the child using a steady beat or a rhythmic pattern.  They may even sing them a simple song while they do this.  A steady beat and rhythmic pattern are prime examples of patterning activities and a very early introduction to mathematical concepts.

Using a Steady Beat  

Steady beat activities such as clapping or marching help the child understand numerical relationships such as one-to-one correspondence and even the concept of “more.” Toddlers may not yet know numbers, but they understand “more.”  For example, if you clap once and then you say, “Can you clap more than I clapped?” a toddler will most likely clap more than once.

Using Rhythm

Rhythm can help children to develop patterning abilities and make one-to-one correspondence relationships between the rhythm, beat and the words to the song. They can repeat, predict and extend rhythmic patterns easily. For example in “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” the teacher can sing “With a moo moo here” and the child can repeat and even extend the pattern of the song by singing “and a moo moo there” with little effort. (Editor's Note: For an activity that helps make the connection between music and math, please see sidebar.)

Putting it Together

With a basic understanding of steady beat, rhythm, and melody teachers can incorporate these musical elements into their ‘normal’ teaching strategies for promoting emergent mathematics. Children can create, reproduce and extend patterns and explore one-to-one correspondence using steady beat, rhythm and melody.  These three components can be used alone or in combination to create both simple and complex patterns for children to explore and interact with in a developmentally appropriate manner.

With children under the age of five, our goal is not to teach formal mathematics or to teach children to memorize their numbers or “math facts,” and songs do not need to just be memory aides or a way to teach a child how to count to ten.  The goal for using music to support mathematics should be to provide infants, toddlers and preschoolers with a stimulating and interactive environment.  Next time you are looking for a way to engage children’s mathematical mind, try a song – any song, and then ask the children to talk about the beat, rhythm, tempo or melody.  We think the children will surprise you with what they already know about mathematics through music.