Mathematics + IT = an essential factor in the early years curriculum

Anne Farr
Senior Lecturer in Mathematics and IT Newman College

This article first appeared in Microscope Early Years Special June 1997

Integrating IT into a busy early years classroom is often not perceived as an easy thing to do. However, with careful planning, and consideration of aspects of management and organisation, integrating IT into the mathematics curriculum can be effectively and successfully achieved. In any planning of the early years curriculum the role of IT must be addressed, and mathematics provides a wealth of opportunities where IT can be used to support, consolidate or extend mathematical concepts, skills and understanding that are already taking place in the classroom.

In any preparation for the effective teaching and learning of mathematics we have to clearly identify the learning objectives we wish the children to achieve. The provision and management of stimulating resources to support the children's learning is all part of the 'good practice' seen in so many early years classrooms, information technology, whether computer systems, programmable toys, or calculators, has a valuable contribution to play as a powerful resource to support mathematics and to develop children's IT capability.

In the National Curriculum Key Stage I programmes of study it states that 'pupils should be given opportunities to examine and discuss their experiences of IT and look at the use of IT in the outside world'. Children's attention can be drawn to the use of information technology in the 'real world' for example, in supermarkets, banks, travel agents, and by people such as authors, doctors, designers and media presenters.

The role play corner can be transformed into many things, for example a café with calculators and a till, a travel agents' with 'home produced' wordprocessed posters, labels and brochures to show costs, length of holidays or day trips, with flight or coach times and 'made up' exchange rates for different currencies.

Calendars and booking forms, (prepared on the computer by adults — ideas by children!) can be used to record the information. Or perhaps a newspaper office with children designing adverts and articles, or a baby clinic where teddies and dolls are measured and weighed on electronic scales and records kept.

Poems, rhymes and stories are widely used in the nursery, play groups and infant classrooms, and these can provide a wonderful source for practical mathematical activities which will stimulate children's interest and promote positive attitudes to mathematics from an early age. In distinguishing the mathematical focus for the poem, story or rhyme the next stage is to think how IT can be integrated. For example, 'The Three Bears' story can be supported by a 'Dress the Teddy' program to develop sequencing and counting, or a survey of children's favourite breakfasts where the information can be collected and stored in a database and then graphs presented to show the findings.

Themes or topics can be used to promote cross-curricular work and encourage children to 'use and apply mathematics' in other subjects. For example, 'Ourselves' might include aspects of measure and number - how many shells can I count into my box in 1 minute? How tall am I? Are there more boys than girls with cats as pets in our class?

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Children are surrounded by IT-handling information: in shops, traffic signs, home, and favourite fast food outlets. The level one descriptor for Information Technology in the National Curriculum requires pupils to 'explore information held on IT systems showing an awareness that information exists in a variety of forms'.

So IT into maths will go! But there is still the problem of 'how do I start?', and 'how do I develop the activity to enhance children's learning of maths and develop their IT capability?'.

In planning for a theme on 'Clothes', I would devise a topic web to show subjects of the curriculum that will be addressed, with focused activities and references to the

National Curriculum programmes of study where appropriate.

Mathematics focus

A key step for the development of information handling in mathematics is sorting into sets according to different criteria. As an example, for the topic on clothes an idea would be to look at the way our clothes fasten, with further work focusing on different types of 'buttons'.

Strategies for planning the activity might be as follows:

Identify the learning objectives:


• to sort buttons into two sets where one has a particular attribute and the other does not (round, not round);

• to sort sets using different criteria (colour, size, shape, material, number of holes);

• to display the data in a variety of ways (Venn, tree and Carroll diagrams);

• to interpret the findings (language, pictorial and symbolic representation).

Information technology

• to enter and store information'

• to retrieve, process and display information that has been stored,

Resources required

Selection of buttons, plastic sorting rings, Carroll diagram cards, large pieces of cardboard, card for labels, felt tipped pens, computer system with printer, computer paper, and a tree structure data handling program.

Sorting Buttons

using a tree diagram

Is it like a ball?
Is it shaped like a flower?
Is it for a baby?
Is it round?
Is it made of leather?
Has it got two holes?

Group size

The introduction can be to a large group, and the IT activity organised with a smaller group, with perhaps an adult helper.

Making a start

Many activities can begin 'away from the computer'! After seating the children in a circle on the floor, tip out the buttons and ask the children for ideas of how the buttons can be sorted. Encourage the children to describe the buttons: What colours are there? How many shapes can they see? What are the buttons made of? How many holes do they have? Do they all have holes? Are the buttons different sizes? What sizes are there? Is the button for an adult, child, or baby, or suitable for a male or female? Encourage the children to sort the buttons in different ways. Show and explain how to use the plastic sorting rings and Carroll cards for sorting. Allow children time to explore different ways of using these, giving opportunities for them to describe how they have chosen to sort the buttons.

Developing the activity

Choose a small selection of buttons. Play a 'guess my button' game. Encourage the children to ask questions that give a yes or no answer, for example:

Is it red? Does it have two holes? Is it for a baby? Allow the children to answer and ask the questions. Introduce the tree diagram by demonstrating the pathway of a particular button using two paths. Write appropriate labels for the pathways. Gradually increase the number of paths, and make and add the labels.

After plenty of practical experience the children's understanding can be assessed by asking them to select the buttons, choose the criteria for sorting, decide on the number of pathways, make or choose the labels, display and then interpret the information.

Integrating Information technology

At this stage the children can be introduced to a tree structure database, for example Sorting Game, Branch, or Wintree. With very young children it is advisable to make a file using the familiar objects and go through the activity. Children can then be encouraged to use the buttons to insert their own data, make a file and then use it.

Extending the activity

The National Curriculum for Information Technology states that 'pupils should use IT to sort and classify information and present their findings' (level 2). The children could carry out a survey to find the number of different fastenings on their clothes. Data could be collected and inserted into a 'card index type' database and graphs produced to present their findings, to look for comparisons, or to test a hypothesis, for example, 'Most clothes are fastened with buttons'. The results can be used to prove or disprove the hypothesis.


Themes and topics with which young children are already familiar are ideal starting points for developing information handling, for example, 'pets', 'ourselves', and 'transport'. The 'using and applying' of mathematics and the development of IT capability can be integrated readily into these if careful and thorough planning has been involved. Young children readily accept the computer in the classroom as another activity and it is up to us as 'educators' and 'facilitators' to develop children's IT use appropriately and effectively in their day to day learning of mathematics.

Yes: maths + IT = an essential factor for the early years curriculum.

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