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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bringing music into your children's world- EYLF friendly!

As you'll know if you've read my profile, my original career training was as a kindergarten to Year 12 Music specialist, and I've spent most of my life teaching teenagers. Music was so much part of my life for over 30 years that when I moved to the world of Early Childhood, I brought a lot of it with me without even thinking about it. 

I had to learn a whole new repertoire of songs, of course, and dredge up the songs I could remember from my own and my son's childhood, but with my background it was easy to find ways to incorporate music into the children's days.

So I guess it's time for me to share some of my methods with you. Many of these ideas will work just as well at home as in a care setting; don't be afraid to experiment!
Rest time tricks
When I experienced my first 'rest time' it was in a toddlers' room, where the carers sat down on the floor and patted the children to sleep while restful music issued from the CD player. It amazed me that the carers didn't pick up any message from the music, and often patted completely 'out of sync' with the beat. If they'd been patting Baby Aunt Annie, she probably would have sat up and furiously pushed their hand away. Crossing the rhythms like that is not restful- it's overstimulating, and irritating to many children.

If you want to get a child to sleep, pat in time with the music. Use a 'lub-dub' pat, like a heartbeat- pat-pat-(rest), pat-pat-(rest). The vast majority of babies will find this rhythm immensely comforting. And even 'wild child' preschoolers will lie down quietly and smile if you play the drums on their back in time to the music... for just as long as you sit next to them, that is!

Transition tricks

When you need to warn the children of a change of activity, the first thing you need is their attention. Raising your voice in song is worth ten attempts at shouting instructions. Be brave!! There is no Karl Sandilands in the room to criticise your singing!! Pitch your voice higher than the hub-bub, wave your arms in the air or flick the lights if you like to attract visual as well as aural attention, and launch into a set song for the occasion.

You'll find that once you've used the same 'call' for a week or two, some children will start singing it with you- or even start it spontaneously the moment you say 'what time is it?'. By singing the instructions, you're modelling that singing is natural and acceptable. Don't be shy or self-critical! You're modelling attitudes to performance!

Keep it up to get them to the mat for circle time...

Wow, don't kids love it when you say 'bottom'? After they know the song, I sometimes skip the word and just put my hands on my backside... and they all roar 'BOTTOM' and collapse into giggles! I don't shy away from that word... it leads into many protective behaviour lessons, and I like to get the giggles over before I start talking about toilets and other body parts. But I digress!

Singing songs
Every play activity in a child's day can have an associated song, if you think about it. 

Playing with animals? Burst into 'Old McDonald', and include a few stray 'wrong' things for fun- 

'On that farm he had a blowfly! EIEIO! With a bzzz bzzz here...'  


'On that farm he had a wombat!' 
'How do you know? He was an Australian farmer. On that farm he had a wombat... EIEIO! With a burrow burrow here...').

A few of these silly verses, and you'll have them making up their own funny words and singing them to you- that's a first step to composition and performance.

Mud pies happening in the yard? Sing! Singing doesn't just belong inside. 

'Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!' (Flanders and Swann, 'The Hippopotamus') 

And then you can make up some other verses... 'Sand, sand, beautiful sand... nothing quite like it for cooling my hand...' or '...sand in the desert all over this land...' (hey, there's a verse for the indigenous kids!).

No good at making up rhymes? Don't worry about it. Nobody's there waiting to give you the Nobel Prize for Literature. Any words that seem like fun and vaguely fit the music will do- the kids don't care, it's YOU holding yourself back. And the more you play with musical ideas yourself, the more confident you'll get. And the braver the kids will get with their own experiments.

You can even make up your own little sing-song songs. If you just use the three notes you hear in the transition song above- the notes children might use when singing 'nyah- nyah- nee- nyah- nyah' and sticking their tongues out!- you'll be tapping into the most accessible 'pitched sounds' for children, the 'playground chant' notes. 

Remember, everything you do is modelling something to the kids. If you burst into song any old time, the kids will see that it's okay to sing, that anyone can sing.  If you make up ludicrous verses that have everyone in stitches, they'll learn that music is active, not passive, and they can do that too.

Why not make a list of songs that fit with common kids' activities? Then start playing with the words a bit... in the car on the way to work... in the shower... somewhere where you can 'sing like no-one's listening'. Confidence is everything. And skill is something that improves with practice. If you don't start... you won't feel more confident, you won't gain more skill, you won't grow as a leader of music-love.

Body rhythms 

You're probably already doing some rhythmic chants with stamping feet or clapping hands, and singing songs like 'If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands'.  If you're observant, you'll see that some kids 'get it' (the minority) and many other kids either just sing/chant or just do the body rhythms.  The dual action of singing and making rhythmic sounds at once is a whole new ball game for many children.

Once you've fostered their confidence in singing by doing it in play situations, you can start introducing body percussion to go along with the songs. That's just a fancy name for clapping, slapping knees, clicking fingers, stamping feet and so on- rhythm with no formal 'instrument', just your body. Start really simply, with knee-slapping OR hand clapping  (not a mixture of both- that can come later when they're confident) on the beat. The indigenous lullaby 'Inanay Gapu Wana' is a great one for this...

...but any rollicking song will do. 

If you're trying to impress a lecturer, any repeated musical pattern that accompanies a song is called an ostinato- but four-year-olds really don't care what it's called as long as it's fun!

A more complex ostinato- like slapping knees and clapping hands alternately- is much harder for children of preschool age, and it's actually quite a good discriminator for musical talent. So throw a few in when the kids get more confident; it will give those innately musical children a real buzz (and make a great ob for your records).

Playing instruments

From slapping knees and clapping hands on the beat, you can go on to using tapping sticks (their proper name is claves) and other simple instruments on the beat. 

WARNING! There is a trick to introducing instruments to a group! You don't need pandemonium (followed by an explanation to the director about why the new instruments are already broken), experiments in flight (followed by an incident report) or a crippling headache by lunchtime.

Group size matters, and smaller is better. Eight would be a good maximum, though I've worked with up to 20 (which is idiotic and not recommended for a beginner).

Start by doing a little solo with the instrument yourself.  Remember, you've been practising so you're no wilting violet any more! 

If the children express interest in playing your instrument (they will), you need some rules before you hand out eight sets of tapping sticks (or whatever) to the group.  You might like to start by giving turns of your one instrument- that's fine- but playing in a group with multiple instruments is a different skill to teach.

Demonstrate the following, with no instruments except the ones in your hands, and get the kids to copy you.

When you get the instrument, you put it on the ground in front of you like this. Show me what you'll do!

Then you put your hands in your lap like this.  Show me!

When I say 'ready', you pick it up like this. Am I playing yet? (NOOOOOO!)

When I say PLAY (or count '1,2,3, play!' if you like), you play!

(Still playing, speak over the sound) When I say 'AAAAAAND... STOP!' what do you think you do? (STOP!) 

Let's practise. Ready! Pick up your pretend instrument! PLAY! AAAAAND STOP! Fantastic.

Where will you put your instrument when we stop? (ON THE FLOOR!) 

Where will you put your hands? (IN YOUR LAP!)

Great! What will we do if anyone gets silly and doesn't stop? (discuss!)

They'll cotton on very quickly. Just playing and stopping is enough to absorb in one session for most kids.  

Once they've mastered that, you can ask them to play loudly (block your ears), softly, fast, slow... like a little mouse... like a roaring tiger... like a snail... remember your start and stop rules!

Tapping sticks or 'egg' shakers (real name- maracas) are the best starter instruments. Later when you introduce the more fragile instruments like drums or sandpaper blocks, you need to have a talk about care of the instruments. 

The children will be fascinated by the fact that drums are made of skin! Ask them what happens to their own skin if someone pokes it with something sharp? We don't want any hurt, broken or 'bleeding' drums!  

The sandblocks also need respect. What happens to paper when it gets wet? Do the experiment and show them how it becomes easy to tear- and remember not to leave the sandblocks where the sandpaper will get wet.

Many musical instruments can be broken beyond repair if they're thrown or trodden on. The jingles on a tambourine can be sharp- no mouthing!!! Poking someone in the eye with a triangle beater could be disastrous. And cowbells are very heavy- I saw a 3-year-old boy nearly cut his little toe off when he dropped one- so choose your instruments with age-appropriateness firmly in mind.

So much for the cautions. Once you've dealt with the boundaries, group playing can be huge (unstructured) fun. Show the children how to 'conduct' (just wave your arm across your body in a curvy J-shape, side to side in time with the music at chest height with an open hand). Show them the sign for 'stop'- you 'grab' the air with your hand, making a fist, and pull it back towards your body. Let them conduct the whole group as they 'free-play', stopping and starting the music (wow, what a power trip that is!).  You can develop this into 'sections of the orchestra', with two groups seated slightly separated and the 'conductor' facing the one he wants to play and then using two hands when he wants everyone playing.

Leave a few instruments out for free play time once the rules and care of instruments have been instilled.  Ask the kids to experiment and see if they can make any 'different' sounds with the instruments, or just let them find out for themselves (they will).  They will come running to share their discoveries with you as they find that they can make different sounds with different beaters, or by scraping instead of hitting, and so on.

Another hugely amusing activity is playing the children's art works.  You can start off by drawing a picture yourself- I usually do a 'storm' picture- with repeated symbols or colours.  Tell the children the big black circle means drums, the little dotted lines mean shakers, the yellow zig-zag means bells and cymbals... then use a ruler to move slowly across the page and let them 'play' the drawing, responding to wherever the ruler is in the picture. 

Using graphic notation like this can be a great way to introduce the concept that signs relate to sounds- a pre-literacy exercise.  And give them the opportunity to make their own 'graphic scores' and they'll suddenly become little composers.  The exercise of explaining what their symbols mean to the group ('red is the drum thunder and blue is rain, so play the shakers there') is a wonderful way to encourage those quiet, creative types to get up and speak. And the delight of hearing your painting or drawing turned into sound- marvellous!

Other ways to use your voice

Singing isn't the only thing you can do with your voice. Why not get the kids using their voice as an instrument in the graphic scores?

 Make a jungle score and draw a black zig-zag or write 'GRRRRR!' when they have to growl like tigers (hah, more literacy!). Draw Spiderman climbing up a building, or a child climbing a slippery dip ladder, and get them to 'step' their voices higher and higher... and when Spiderman jumps off or the child slides down, get them sliding their voices downwards to match.

Read 'The Three Bears' and get them doing the sound effects. As Goldilocks opens the door of the house... make a creaky, upward slide with your voices.  Use low, medium and high voices as you say the bears' lines- 'Somebody's been eating MY porridge!'

You can introduce other instruments and body percussion into storytelling too... slap the floor for footsteps as the bears come home... make cracking sounds with the tapping sticks when Goldilocks breaks Baby Bear's chair... you're limited only by your imagination.

Get brave. Drop your inhibitions and put some music into your children's world.  It's magic!


  1. These are so helpful! My children love music, and I was just noticing the other day how well they play when music is on. Their attention spans last longer, and they are so much more calm.
    Your tips are excellent, and as I read through them I kept thinking, "These make so much sense!" THanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Callie. I really appreciate all your feedback.

    You must be playing the right sort of music to your kids- some types will rev them up no end! :D

  3. Deborah Stewart and I once shared a common fantasy that we would one day try to go an entire day at school ONLY singing. (I've since tried it, and the kids eventually tell you to shut up!) But I do love breaking out into song every day, making up words, playing with melody and voice. I like how it creates a kind of rhythm and flow to certain parts of the day.

    And, as you write, there is great power in making up silly songs. I've found there is little that focuses the kids' attention better than as they sit there anticipating what silly thing is going to come out of my mouth next. =)

  4. Much laughter... Tom, I think we must be twins separated at birth! The power of music to make kids pay attention is truly a wonderful thing.

    That's why I really dislike places that play music as a constant background. You lose that value and impact. It's like offering vegemite sandwiches for lunch every single day...

  5. Some great ideas! I like your tips and encouragement for those who are "performance shy." Sometimes it feels awkward or a little strange to break into song - but you do get used to it. (I don't do it as much as you and Tom, but I'm getting better.)

    And I agree with your comments at the beginning about patting with the beat. When I was a director and assisted with rest time (as needed), patting to the beat helped me stay calm as well as the child.

  6. Yes, Scott, you're so right about it feeling odd unless you're totally accustomed to integrating music... but if you can overcome that initial 'I sound crazy' self-criticism, you see at once that it WORKS. Many, many times I've seen teachers struggling to get the attention of kids who are highly focussed on their play... and I've burst into one of these little songs, and BINGO! Everyone's looking and listening.

  7. And the best part is, you dont even have to sing well! I know of a few teachers that did not want to sing because they thought their voice was sub par, I agree with you- be brave, go for it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

  8. Like Tom, I find the authenticity & genuineness of creating silly songs on the spot often more engaging than pre-existing songs. After about a month or so each new group of children each year begin to expect the unexpected from me. I'm sure I could find links to the Principles, Practices & Outcomes in the EYLF as well as how it fits in with all 3 aspects - Being, Belonging, Becoming. However, sometimes I think it's just as important to simply have fun & enjoy the moment.

    PS: sorry I'm so late commenting on this post. I will make a effort to visit your site much more often. Unfortunately, I go through stages where I don't visit many blogs & then others when I'm all over the web.

  9. Greg, that's so true about the silly songs; we often forget that music is a CREATIVE art, not just a REPRODUCTIVE one. Every time you make up a silly song that belongs just to that moment, you're linking the children to that moment in time- and that's definitely part of 'belonging' to their little preschool society. You're also using the 'becoming' concept, because you'll find that some children pick up what you're doing and start to emerge as composers themselves, making up little songs and performing them for you with no self-consciousness at all.


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