Young Children Can Learn Math through the Arts?

Math and science are both human endeavors. We see both in our everyday lives. And yes, young children likewise do. Counting steps while dancing, recognizing shapes in art work, playing with colors - these are activities that offer great opportunities for young minds to begin exploring mathematics and the sciences. It is during these early years that children develop their interests and desires. The brain of a child is built to learn and grow. Exposure to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) during the early childhood years equips a young child with the path towards developing a positive attitude towards these disciplines.

The music and arts are ways by which we express ourselves. It starts as early as finger painting or working on a coloring book. While a child begins to master a language, he or she likewise explores other means. In these early works of art, a child begins to create, think and communicate. Children even begin to work with each other at an early age. STEM is also about creating, thinking, communicating and collaborating. These are skills that are likewise necessary to do well in math and science. Thus, early childhood education is really a continuum not just through the years, but across disciplines or subjects.

Math can be taught through the arts. This is the driving force behind a program pursued by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in the state of Virginia. It is called "Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts". It aims to "hit two birds with one stone". As emphasized throughout the articles in this blog, priorities in basic education should be placed in STEM and early childhood education. Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts attempts to address both while taking advantage of programs in arts that naturally attracts young minds. The US Department of Education provides the following specific example:

Wolf Trap Teaching Artist Amanda Layton Whiteman leads a preschool class in movement as part of the Early STEM/Arts Program. (Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.)
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When Wolf Trap Teaching Artist Amanda Layton Whiteman arrives at the preschool classroom, all the children are excited that it’s time for dance — and for math. The teacher is amazed at how much the children love math, she tells Whiteman. She’s astonished that certain children who once showed little interest in school are absorbed and attentive during the classroom residency sessions. What’s happening in this Fairfax, Va., classroom to spark such a change? 
Working side by side with the teacher in the classroom twice a week for approximately eight weeks to introduce the children to early math concepts through dance, Whiteman’s challenge is to “put math in their bodies.” How, she’s asked herself, can she use dance to help them make connections to math concepts? 
Whiteman leads the young learners in the dance experiences they love to do, knowing they’re making important discoveries in the process. When she asks them to make a curvy or angular shape with their arms, they’re grasping the earliest concepts of geometry, while also learning to regulate their own bodies. When she asks them to alternate making high shapes and low shapes, they gain the vital math skill of pattern recognition as well as learning to create a dance phrase.
The following are brief videos describing the program:


Teacher Professional Development

The Three Little Pigs and Engineering. After all, those pigs needed to build a house sturdy enough to protect them from the big bad wolf.

The program is still in its early stage and obviously, research is needed at this point to see what works and how it works. The latest review of literature and research in this area led to the following recommendations:
1. Program designers, evaluators, and researchers should consider the broad spectrum of constructs that can be measured when making decisions about designing, evaluating, or studying an arts-integration initiative.

2. Researchers should develop common definitions for each of the constructs in this spectrum, basing these definitions on theory and empirical work in the field. 
3. A comprehensive and scientific review of the literature (studies and evaluations of arts integration) should be launched. Such a review will make it possible to determine the extent to which there is cumulative evidence of a link between arts integration and student outcomes. 
4. Researchers should develop tools or instruments that are not specific to a particular arts integration program, to assess changes in student outcomes after arts-integrated instruction—including changes in process abilities and changes in social emotional learning and attitude/behavior.

5. Researchers should develop a non-program-specific framework or rubric that would (1) pinpoint measurable aspects of quality arts-integrated instruction and (2) offer an overall measurement of the quality of a given interval of a teacher’s arts-integrated instruction.
As mentioned in an earlier post in this blog, "Language Is More than Culture and Culture Is More than Language", there is an elementary school in Annandale, Virginia, called Woodburn elementary school, that currently focuses on integrating the arts into all the subjects:
"Woodburn teachers strive to integrate the fine and communicative arts into all instruction throughout the school day. We believe that arts integration enhances learning for all students, particularly visual, tactile, and kinesthetic learners, and those whose home language is not English. Using the arts to learn more traditional academic subjects provide natural connections for differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all students. Music, drama, visual arts and poetry, for example, are major tools that appeal to the visual tactile, auditory and kinesthetic learners' needs.

This provides students with multiple ways to remember, transfer and apply their learning. When the arts are integrated into academic subjects, instruction is likely to be more active, hands-on, personally meaningful and vivid for students - all research-based techniques proven to increase the rate and retention of student learning. Educating students using the arts also provides a foundation for their appreciation of and participation in the arts as life-long learners."

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Using arts in teaching STEM in preschool, however, is still work in progress. However, the ideas clearly merit a try and of course, conclusions drawn from well designed and controlled studies are definitely worth the wait.