Let There Be Music!

A couple of weeks ago, I sent out an email about music in the early childhood classroom. Honestly, the enthusiastic response surprised me. People were so grateful for the topic!

Thinking about it, it’s possible that I primarily heard from people who, like me, are long-time veterans in the field. As I said in the email, back in the day music was a huge part of early childhood education. It was almost impossible to find a classroom without it. And ECE professionals were always searching for new ways to include it in their programs. Because of that, conferences were packed with sessions dedicated to the topic, and conference exhibit halls offered multiple options for purchasing children’s music.

Sadly, those days are gone. Too often, worksheets and direct instruction have replaced singing and moving in early childhood environments. Curriculums have become standardized. ECE preparation programs in colleges and universities frequently tell pre-service teachers exactly what to teach and how, with movement and music courses becoming more and more rare. (Trust me; royalties for my movement and music textbook are depressingly low these days – and not just from an economic standpoint, but from the standpoint of what that symbolizes.)

Today, when singing and moving are part of the classroom, strangers on a screen are often leading them. An instructional coach lamented that she sees little human interaction these days among teachers and children. One classroom observer told me she even witnessed children greeted by songs on tablets every morning.

That last sentence is a whole blog post unto itself. For now, let’s look only at the loss of music and why that saddens us veteran educators.

First and foremost, children love music! Shouldn’t the joy it offers be reason enough to make it part of children’s daily lives?

However, if that’s not sufficient, there is plenty of research showing that music contributes to many areas of children’s development, including academic performance. Here are some of the findings:

  • According to the studies of neurologist Nina Kraus, music develops attention, working memory, and language development. Music contributes greatly to language and listening skills. Music and language arts both consist of symbols and ideas; when the two are used in combination, abstract concepts become more concrete. For example, the word slow has only so much meaning to a child when she reads or spells it. When she actually hears slow music, however, the meaning is expanded. (When the child also moves to slow music, comprehension is further solidified.)
  • Anita Collins, author of The Music Advantage: How Music Helps Your Child Develop, Learn, and Thrive, tells us music increases the attention span a little bit at a time.
  • Music has been said to give children greater motivation to communicate with the world – perhaps because music provides them with their first exposure to the existence and richness of their own culture, as well as the heritage and cultures of other people and regions. Perhaps it’s because music can be a nonverbal form of communication and, therefore, can bridge the gaps among people of different backgrounds.
  • Music enhances mathematical abilities. Ellen Booth Church writes: “Think about the skills involved in singing a song such as ‘This Old Man.’ This simple song incorporates many basic math skills, including matching and comparing (through changes in pitch, volume, and rhythm); patterning and sequencing (through repetitions of melodies, rhythms, and lyrics); and counting and addition (identifying cardinal numbers and adding one more with each verse). When you add moving to the beat, you have created an entire mind/body package of learning rolled into one song!”
  • Music contributes to executive functioning.

There is so much more, but I’m sure you get the picture: We have many excellent reasons to make music part of the early childhood environment – and many reasons why it should never have been diminished or excluded!

But how do we include it in the program? That’s not an easy question to anwer in a single blog post, but I can offer a couple of suggestions.

I’ve often spoken about sneaking movement into the curriculum, which sadly seems to be the norm these days. If you’re in a situation where you’re expected to focus on academics and a standardized curriculum, you may also have to sneak music into the day. If so, I want to assure you that it’s easy enough to do.

For example, why not use songs for transitions? Instead of simply lining the children up and transitioning them to lunch, it would be so much more fun to sing a piggyback song. How about “If you’re hungry and you know it, come to lunch”?

If your children are still fortunate enough to have nap or rest time, soft music is the perfect accompaniment to that. Music is mood-altering and can help children calm themselves. (A caveat: if you have children with sensory issues, who are susceptible to what they perceive as noise, you may have to make accommodations.)

In the past I’ve contended that music should be used intentionally and not simply become background noise that the children can tune out. That said, one kindergarten teacher shared with me that she was always teased for having the calmest classroom in her building. The other teachers would laughingly say, “You and your Handel’s Water Music.”

It turns out that she was onto something. There is research demonstrating that playing classical music in the classroom increases relaxation and positive behavior. Those who teased that kindergarten teacher had the answer right at their fingertips!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t insist that human interaction is absolutely necessary! Even before whiteboards and digital devices made it easy for teachers to remain uninvolved, I witnessed teachers who stepped aside while cassettes or CDs led the children in song or movement. But the children need you. Music can foster emotional attachment, but that won’t happen with an absent teacher. Even if you’re simply speaking the words over the lyrics as they’re sung, you’re a big part of the activity.

Remember: you don’t need to be an expert in the field of music, or have an experienced singing voice, to offer children valuable musical experiences. Children are not going to judge you on the quality of your singing, instrument playing, or movement ability. Your willingness to participate is enough. The children love it when teacher joins in, and they learn much from your example!

6 Comments

  • Irene says:

    Thank You! Went to a conference at least 20 years ago because I knew it was important and I had no musical intelligence and did not feel very confident; armed with activities, great songs and classical Cd’s I was set! Now when I go back in to school to sub the first thing I do is find the CD player and get out instruments, scarves and have a fun filled morning.

    • Rae says:

      Irene, I love that you sought out information on a topic about which you weren’t comfortable! The schools where you sub are very lucky to have you!

  • Tricia says:

    Please add me to your email list

  • Mechelle Thomas says:

    I love this!
    Thank you Rae for speaking to the things that are so important in early childhood education that seem to have been forgotten or set aside as no longer important!
    Can’t wait to share this with the teachers I support.

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