Enabling Environments

You Don’t Need to be an Expert to Make Music Meaningful in the Early Years

  • You Don’t Need to be an Expert to Make Music Meaningful in the Early Years

You don’t need to fire up the auto-tuner to make musical activities meaningful for your children, says Wendy Bowkett…

Last time, I wrote about the idea of creating an early years environment in which children can experience different types of music and enjoy a wide variety of tunes and songs. Music is not necessarily a specialist subject in early years settings, but I do think it should be given greater emphasis. It covers all aspects of the Foundation Stage ‘curriculum’ with a bit of tweaking here and there, and as a practitioner, you can provide opportunities for children to have fun exploring sounds while developing their concentration and listening skills, and improving hand-eye coordination and fine and gross motor skills.

I have little musical expertise: I can’t read music or play an instrument, and as for singing, I’m not always a pleasure to hear! I don’t feel ‘unmusical’, however; I love listening, moving (some might say, dancing) and singing to most types of music. Most children, of course, seem unaware of such considerations – they just enjoy!

This is an important point. It means that the quality of an adult’s voice or his or her ability with an instrument isn’t as important at a preschool level. Although a colleague may notice the odd note was ‘flat’, the children will just be in the moment; that you have a sense of fun, enthusiasm and interest is far more important to them! We’re not taking part in The Voice or The X Factor – although children do love to perform as if they are on stage in front on an audience, so ‘a show’ can make for a fun activity! – so keep it simple, build your confidence and the rest will follow.

Try to experiment with music, instruments (usually percussion in nurseries), singing, dancing and rhythms yourself. If you are a confident singer or play an instrument, then you probably already select music, songs and instruments that you are familiar with and enjoy with the children in your group. However, if you are less confident, don’t listen to music much (let alone read it), sing out of tune, change key halfway through a song, etc., you may find it extremely difficult to summon up the courage to devise your own musical activity. It will work more effectively if you choose a few favourite tracks, songs or rhymes that you are comfortable with, than if you use music or tunes that are imposed on you, or that you think you should like. Music, songs and rhythms that aren’t to your taste can make your activity less enjoyable for all, whereas if you feel relaxed and happy, you can create situations where the music enables individual children to listen and respond appropriately. Remember, too, that making sounds is easy: just about everyone can clap their hands, bang on a table or stamp their feet!

To help develop your confidence, try playing simple games like musical chairs or statues, dancing around chairs or each other while listening carefully for a pause in the music. You could use a familiar rhyme such as ‘Half a pound of tuppenny rice’. The slinky, slim weasels (yourself and the children) are slithering around the floor singing the rhyme until the “pop!” word – everyone shouts “stop!” instead and freezes! This well-known rhyme gives children plenty of warning, so that they can anticipate when to become still. Keep sessions short and enjoyable – a little goes a long way, and will leave them wanting to play again another day and you feeling it’s a job well done. An obvious follow-up activity is to use a song where children can bang a drum, crash cymbals or blow a whistle at specific points, turning all their friends into statues.

Finally, always be prepared to improvise and play with rhymes and songs. This helps to model the ethos and attitude of creativity you want to develop in children. My favourite thing to do when children were waiting (for anything), was use a song like ‘Sally goes round the sun’ and substitute ‘Sally’ for the names of children in the group. When their names were sung, they could go to wash their hands ready for lunch or out to play, etc. Not only did they feel special having their own song but it helped avoid congestion in the bathroom or corridor putting on coats!

Wendy Bowkett is an author and ran her own private day nursery for 15 years.