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Maths can be tricky in the early years because working with numbers is such a conceptual topic - there is no object that is a "four", for example. You cannot pick up  a "four". You cannot smell a "four". And the younger the child, the more literal they are.

However, once children have been introduced to literal/physical objects and experiences, they are better equipped to recognise and respond to concepts and ideas. From Piaget to Bronfenbrenner, we know that children relate what they learn to what they already know. This is the reason that for years, experts have explained that children have better outcomes when they have a wide range of early experiences. For example, once a child has seen a sheep or travelled in a bus, they have developed a frame of reference for the next time they come across similar activities. If they hear a story or sing a song about sheep or travelling in a bus, they can relate to that experience through memory. And the brain continues to associate these feelings and actions with that experience automatically, long after the memory has faded.

Using music to relate to learning experiences can be a powerful tool. In order to sing together successfully, the words and music must be learnt and sung. In order to play the game, the rules must be followed at the right time. When we use music to relate to numbers, we need to consider the two main goals within early childhood maths: relating numbers to quantity, and spatial relationships (Williams, 2020). Music provides a non-confrontational way into developing both these mathematical skills, using familiar formats that most children enjoy: songs and games.

Relating Numbers to Quantity

We introduce number awareness by using learning to count. As counting becomes more automatic, children are able to do other things at the same time, like counting steps. Doing two things at the same time develops the brain, helping children to substitute concrete actions (like watching a real cat) for abstract ideas (like the picture of a cat).

Here are some useful songs that support number-work in the early years – all available on Musicaliti’s YouTube and Sound Cloud channels, and soon to be available on streaming sources like Spotify, Deezer and Amazon.

One, Two, Three, Four, Five

One, two, three, four, five

Once I caught a fish alive

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten

Then I let it go again

Why did you let it go?

Because it bit my finger so

Which finger did it bite?

This little finger on my right

This is one of the most familiar songs used when teaching counting because the 5-5 split matches our fingers on each hand. Research in 2008 shows that counting physical objects (even fingers!) is more effective than using pictures or computer-generated objects.

Five Currant Buns

Five currant buns in a baker’s shop

Round and fat with a cherry on top

Along came a girl with a penny one day

Bought a currant bun and took it away

Four currant buns in a baker’s shop …

This popular song literally begins to introduce children to the mathematical language of subtraction by relating a smaller quantity to “taking away”.

Alice The Camel

Alice the camel had ten humps

Alice the camel had ten humps

Alice the camel had ten humps

So go, Alice, go, boom-boom-boom!

Alice the camel had nine humps …

This repetitive song is great for developing working memory and counting backwards, and can also be started at five if time is running short! And don’t forget the final verse with the punchline:

Alice the camel had no humps

Alice the camel had no humps

Alice the camel had no humps

‘Cos Alice was a horse!

Spatial Awareness

Understanding the way things fit together is another essential skill in maths. There is plenty of research to show that seeing patterns when working with numbers is a necessity. From junk models and puzzles, to following patterns and treasure maps, spatial awareness improves our ability to work with people, understand language and locate ourselves in new environments. Songs and games about movement, and using appropriate language, helps to create the literal and physical experience of these theoretical concepts.

Round and Round

Round and round the wheel goes round

As it goes the corn is ground

This is a lovely song that can tie into learning about where food comes from, specifically how corn can be ground to make bread. Holding hands and walking in a circle allows children to act out the language of the wheel movement. (During COVID times, it is essential to minimise contact with too many, and wash hands afterwards.)

Snail Snail

Snail, snail, snail, snail

Creep around and round and round

This is a lovely leading song, where holding hands in a line leads the group to coil up in a spiral like a snail shell. The adult/leader takes smaller steps and models walking to the beat. (During COVID times, masks may be helpful, while handwashing is essential.)

Old Brass Wagon

Circle to the left, old brass wagon

Circle to the left, old brass wagon

Circle to the left, old brass wagon

You’re the one, my darling

Circle to the right, old brass wagon

Circle to the right, old brass wagon

Circle to the right, old brass wagon

You’re the one, my darling

This lovely circle song again uses mathematical terminology (“circle”). It introduces direction (left and right), which develops vocabulary, while holding hands in a circle develops spatial awareness (and don’t forget the handwashing afterward).

The joy of teaching through songs and games is that they engage at all levels. Children with more musical/dancing experience may pick up concepts quicker, yet those who do not have the same experience are still able to join in with the game. Over time, the group as a whole will become more proficient and begin to see links between the games and written work.

Reference:

Williams, H. J. (2020). Mathematics in the Early Years: What matters? Impact.Chartered College. https://impact.chartered.college/article/mathematics-in-early-years/

About the author:

Musician, researcher and author, Frances Turnbull, is a self-taught guitarist who has played contemporary and community music from the age of 12. She delivers music sessions to the early years and KS1. Trained in the music education techniques of Kodály (specialist singing), Dalcroze (specialist movement) and Orff (specialist percussion instruments), she has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology (Open University) and a Master’s degree in Education (University of Cambridge). She runs a local community choir, the Bolton Warblers, and delivers the Sound Sense initiative aiming for “A choir in every care home” within local care and residential homes, supporting health and wellbeing through her community interest company.

She has represented the early years music community at the House of Commons, advocating for recognition for early years music educators, and her table of progressive music skills for under 7s features in her curriculum books.

Frances is the author of “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“ “Learning with Music: Games and Activities for the Early Years“, published by Routledge, August 2017.

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