“Listening to and making music form strong connections in the brain. These are the same connections that are used to solve math problems.”*

Children hear music on the radio every day, sing along to catchy tunes, and memorize favourite musical nursery rhymes.

Scientists have been exploring the connection between these early music experiences and learning mathematics, and realizing that music is great preparation for success in math.

And it’s not just listening to music that prepares your child’s brain, but actually making music. Early childhood is the perfect time to use music and movement to discover mathematics. Rhythm is pattern; comparing higher pitches and lower notes is measurement; counting out the 1-2-3 of a waltz uses numbers.

GEOMETRY: Space and Shapes

What is it?

Geometry begins with understanding the shapes and structures around us in the world. One specific element of geometry is called spatial-temporal reasoning. Young children can develop excellent visualization skills, too, given well-planned experiences using music.

For young children, geometry is learned not just in their minds, but through their eyes, hands, and bodies, too! Spatial sense is about understanding location, motion, and distance, and is developed through movement. As children move their bodies and objects through space, they learn relationship concepts like near, under, by, and on top of, and deepen their understanding of positional and spatial concepts.

How to use music to help your child understand space and shapes?

Young children who participate in making music show stronger spatial-temporal reasoning skills than those who don’t.  If you’ve heard of the “Mozart effect” involving the benefits of listening to music, notice that the more recent studies actually show long-term impacts from children making music, too.

  • Start with dancing and moving to any music with your child, using props like hoops, scarfs, ribbons or pom-poms. Show your child while you dance how to go under, over, up, down, through etc. or how to make shapes in the air or on the floor with the prop. This helps them to understand where their body are in relation to the props and to you, thus developing their spatial awareness.
  • Make sure you have a variety of percussion instruments available (home-made or bought) like rhythm sticks, shakers, drums and bells. Always explore an instrument before you start playing, for example make a triangle with your sticks, can you play your bells up high or behind your back, can you roll your egg shaker like a wheel, can you build towers with them, can you find all the circle shapes etc.

 Patterns

What Are They?

Has your preschooler noticed the many sequences and arrangements around her in the world? Day follows night, the kitchen tiles go white-black-white-black, snack comes after nap . . . Those are simple patterns! Soon after these informal understandings, children begin to explore patterns in physical objects like coloured blocks or differently sized cups. A preschooler’s brain begin to grasp the rules behind patterns—they figure out the rule, sometimes figure out how to put the rule into words, and predicts what will come next in the pattern following this rule.

How to use music to help your child understand patterns?

In addition to working with patterns using physical objects, leading math educators recommend working with patterns of movement and sound.

From simple steady beats to complex rhythms and repeated choruses, music is filled with patterns.

  • Imitate a pattern of movement (clap, stomp, clap, stomp…; tap tap clap clap…..).
  • Create a pattern using music instruments (bell, shaker, sticks, bell, shaker, sticks…)
  • Create or imitate a pattern of sound (shake-shake-shake, shake-shake-shake…or tickety tick). Sometimes it is easier for the child if you add words to the pattern.
  • Sing easy children’s songs with a verse, refrain, verse, refrain and point out to the child that you are going to change movements when the music changes. Almost all children’s songs have 2 parts, they work great for circle dances. Walk around the circle for the verse and circle in and out for the refrain.
  • Use drums to play a rhythm for the child and they must copy it on their drum. Start with easy patterns like just 3 counts and later make it more difficult. You can even use music rhythms like “ta ta ta-té ta” if you are familiar with those. 

Numbers & Measurements

What Are They?

Ask your preschool-age child about math, and he may say, “It’s about numbers and counting.” Your child will be moving from “rote counting” (where she recites numbers by memory) to “rational counting” (where she will count actual objects correctly).

Think about the challenge: answering “how many?” means not only getting the number sequence correct (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), but also answering with the last number word used in the count. Getting to, knowing it’s the answer, and saying “five!” is a big step! Saying things like “I’m bigger than you!” That’s measuring!

Researchers tell us that preschoolers are developing important measurement concepts during the ages of 3–5. Well before your child uses numbers on a ruler to measure length, she is learning to think about measurement by making comparisons like bigger/smaller (size) or faster/slower (speed/time).

 How to use music to help your child understand numbers & measurements?

“Preschoolers see the world as an arena for counting. Children want to count everything.”

  • Use counting songs to build on your child’s natural enthusiasm by integrating numbers into music and movement activities. For example as the children sing “Ten in a Bed”, they are mastering a number sequence and the concept of subtracting.
  • Compare high and low sounds of instruments.  Is this drum beat faster or slower? Listen to fast and slow music and move or dance with the music. Rhythm listening and comparing gives your child many opportunities to measure and compare time intervals.

In conclusion music and mathematics are a natural fit, and research is beginning to prove it: playing music can actually make young children stronger mathematicians. So play that drum and shake that shaker and sing those counting songs with a one-two-three. Believe it or not, your child is learning math!

  • Sawyers, K. & Hutson-Brandhagen, J. (2004). Music and Math: How do we make the connection for preschoolers? Child Care Information Exchange, July/August 2004
  • Bennett, Heidi Gilman. (2008). Discovering Mathematics through Music

About the author

Elrika van der Merwe is a home school mother of two. She has a Master’s degree in Music, is a trained Kindermusik educator and gives music training for pre-school teachers on a regular basis. She has won numerous Kindermusik awards during the past 13 years, as biggest studio in S.A, Maestro in Masterful teaching and most inspirational teacher. Her passions are her own children and music education. She sings in an acapella group, Singsational, in her free time. You can contact Elrika at elrika@stimustation.co.za if you want more information about her Kindermusik classes.


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