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Using Music to Support Early Learning

by Mary E. Maunder on February 28

Before birth we respond to music and rhythm. The ear is the first sensory organ to develop and a foetus can respond to a sound stimulus at only 16 weeks of development. By 24 weeks, active listening is possible.

We are born with musical ability!

Babies listen and respond to sounds and also make many of their own! They enjoy familiar rhythms and are comforted when rocked to and fro, a movement very similar to that experienced in the womb when their mother was walking. Babies will kick their legs and move their arms in response to lively music and can be relaxed, soothed and encouraged to sleep with gentle music and lullabies.

Young children should be given every opportunity to develop and use their musical skills. They should explore and experiment with sounds. Their first instrument is their own body which can sing, chant, squeal, shout, whisper, blow, tap, stamp etc. Their body can move in numerous ways, often responding spontaneously and naturally to rhythm, interpreting and reflecting the music they hear. We have all seen a young child jiggle and move to a strong beat.

Using music can be an enjoyable way to help children learn, whatever their race, culture or ability. It can encourage them to gain confidence and develop new skills and concepts. A child’s learning is about experiencing, development and growth. It is nurtured, supported and extended by us, building on what they already know. Music is a language that can be accessed by almost everyone.

It can be used through all areas of learning, offering the opportunity to experience, create and share ideas. Music, song and dance can stimulate parts of the brain responsible for language development, maths, logic and spatial awareness, creativity, self expression and of course….music is lots of fun!

I have put together some ideas and musical activities to support learning across the six areas of foundation stage learning. I hope they will be useful.

I know many practitioners already use music to support their teaching in very creative ways. My ideas here are intended for the many people working with young children who do not have “Musical confidence”. To those people I can only say “You do have all the musical skills you need to help children learn. With encouragement and support, your children can have enhanced learning and share their natural joy of music with you”.

Personal, social and emotional development

Listening to others, turn taking, confidence and positive self-esteem, joining in with a group, can all be encouraged during a fun-filled song session.

Music can give the opportunity to experience other cultures. It can convey emotions and give children a chance to express their own feelings. Music can be played to soothe and calm when needed, give instructions such as a signal for tidy up time and to enable children to release energy and emotions.

  • Collect samples of music from other lands to support topics about faraway places, food and lifestyles.
  • Invite parents from other cultures to share their native nursery rhymes and lullabies.
  • Encourage all children to join in with well-known songs even if at first they only want to move to the rhythm or attempt actions. The language will come later when their confidence has grown.
  • Let individuals or groups of children accompany songs with percussion instruments, voice or body sounds. Encourage them to listen to others as they join in.
  • Give those who feel confident to do so, an opportunity to perform to others and at times take the lead. It is also important to be part of a listening audience as well as a performer.
  • Together, listen to short pieces of happy, sad, angry and gentle music. Ask the children to give their ideas about what the music is telling them or how they feel. Value all contributions.
  • Play sound lotto and matching games from behind a screen to encourage focused listening and concentration.

Communication, language and literacy

Language development starts with a baby listening to adults. Just think about the way most of us instinctively talk to a baby. We probably use our voice like a musical instrument, repeating phrases in a sing-song style, using a higher pitch than normal speech and leaving silences for the baby’s response. We are almost creating a song! This is great but why do we stop so soon? Let’s have fun with listening games, make up songs using everyday phrases and support stories through action songs and movement to music.

  • Have musical conversations with an individual child to encourage listening and responding. Use a drum and take turns playing copy-cat games.
  • Let the children help you invent their own actions to short songs to enhance meaning.
  • Find appropriate moments during the day to repeat simple phrases or instructions rhythmically to form musical patterns and encourage the children to say or sing them with you. “Pick up the bricks…drop them in the box” makes an interesting rhythm and makes tidy up time much more fun!
  • Words of songs do not need to be taught they are absorbed naturally if you play them during activity time.
  • Extend vocabulary and ideas by changing the odd word of familiar songs. Let the children contribute with their suggestions.

Mathematical development

Children respond to rhythm. They enjoy creating patterns with sound. Sound gives another dimension to visual prompting. Action songs provide an ideal opportunity to use mathematical language in a natural way. Counting up and down is much more fun with an action song to illustrate it.

  • Create repeating patterns of sound E.g. Two taps on a drum… one shake of a tambourine…repeat. Ask children to continue the pattern. You could also use a pictorial representation for this or coloured beads on a lace.
  • Children love participating in “One less” songs which involve either children standing in front of the group and one sitting down at the end of each verse, or showing fingers and counting them at each verse.
  • Use songs that require actions with hands and fingers and ask them to do them near- far, high -low, big small etc to use mathematical language.
  • Use body sounds such as clapping or percussion to give prompts to numbers such as claps to represent ages, or to match with number symbols.
  • Use percussion instruments to emphasise the beat of music samples having a 2, 3 or 4 beat pulse.
  • Make the sounds of the shape names work for you. For example: Emphasise the syllables of “Tri-an-gle” using a percussion triangle to tap out the name. It’s a multi-sensory approach allowing the children to hear the sharp three beats as they see the shape. Similarly, chant four words like “Square- like- a -box” as you indicate the four sides of the shape. Exaggerate the rhythm of the words or sing it. The children really do not care if you are not an accomplished singer. If you are out of tune, they will not mind …so go for it!

Knowledge and understanding of the world

Songs can prompt awareness of the environment, the seasons, weather and change. They can be used to celebrate festivals. Using musical instruments both conventional and homemade and also body sounds can be a starting point for early science investigation, experiment and discovery.

  • Collect a box of bits and pieces that can be used to make interesting sounds such as corrugated card for scraping, well sealed containers with beans, sand, rice or pasta inside for shaking, sheets of card for wobbling, empty boxes with elastic bands stretched over for twanging, pieces of wood, plastic card and metal for beating and scraping. Let the children experiment and use their ideas during story-time.
  • Play follow-the-leader games with instruments to encourage children to recognise “change” of sound and/or actions.
  • There are songs designed to support all the early learning goals in this area of learning, with content about growing, ourselves, creatures, weather, seasons and the environment. Good starting points for topics.

Physical development

Both fine and gross motor skills and body awareness can be developed through action songs and moving to music. These kinds of activities are ideal to use with individuals, small or large groups of children.

  • Inside or outside, use the rhythm of language to emphasise movement. Chant and repeat words in time to bouncing, jumping, rolling etc E.g. “Up and down, Up and down” “Roly poly over you go” “We are walking…slowly… walking”
  • Use a drum or other percussion instrument to give starting and stopping instructions.
  • Let children listen to pre-recorded music and discuss with you the movement it portrays. Ask them to let the music “Tell them” what to do. Give them contrasting samples E.g. Slow and heavy, light and fast. Let them dance freely.
  • Use finger rhymes and songs to isolate index finger and practise pincer grip.
  • Use whole body and arm movement to practise imaginary anti-clockwise circle shapes, zig-zags and lines to develop pre-writing skills.

Expressive arts

Music is an art form. Through listening and performing, using song, dance or composition, young children have the means to create something that is personal and individual. They can experiment with new ideas without failure and begin to learn how to express thoughts and emotions. They become aware that music can have meaning and start to interpret contrasting sounds and tempos. As a practitioner you do not need to be a musician to encourage these skills.

  • Play recorded music during general activity time and watch the children experiment with different body movements and brush strokes at the easel.
  • Use visual prompts to help children interpret and feel the qualities of dance music. E.g. Bubbles, floaty materials, clockwork toys.
  • Put musical instruments in the role-play area and encourage the children to make their own appropriate sounds during play.
  • Let children play along to their favourite songs and nursery rhymes. They will learn to follow the beat and copy rhythm patterns.
  • Encourage them to make up their own songs and help you do the same. It doesn’t have to be a chart topper, just personal and individual.
  • Help children create “Sound stories” using instruments, body sounds and descriptive words. No one fails… and creativity is encouraged.

Mary E. Maunder

Originally from London where she trained as a primary teacher, taking Art and Design as a main subject, Mary taught for many years in Nottinghamshire, specialising in Early Years Education, then left teaching to write and compose seven songbooks, music CDs and a radio series for very young children.