Harnessing the educational potential of songs, rhymes and instruments from around the world is easy, whatever your musical experience, says Wendy Bowkett…
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my family playing I-spy or hide-and-seek. However, my favourite game when I was little was taking turns to sing a song – usually nursery rhymes. As we got older the songs or rhymes would start with a particular letter of the alphabet, e.g. ‘L’: ‘Little Arabella Miller’, ‘Lavender Blue’, ‘Lucy Locket’. When we could think of no more, another letter would be picked.
I am still fascinated and intrigued by nursery rhymes and songs, to the extent that I researched their history while compiling a book on activities centred around a selection of them. Music and singing are two of my most-loved early years activities – by using specific rhymes or instrumental tracks, children learn about sequencing, words and numbers, alliteration, timing, pitch and sounds, helping to develop concentration and anticipation, listening and expressive skills, to name but a few of the benefits.
I was brought up surrounded by music. We had no TV, only a mono record player and wind-up gramophone. Dad loved opera and classical music, my elder brother played the Kinks and Billy Fury, while my mum played the piano and sang beautifully. She liked Nina and Frederik, Jim Reeves and Max Bygraves. I have her vinyl copies of ‘Little Donkey’ and many others. I can still remember every word as we sang along. I love Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ yet I don’t remember a single song. My dad never sang or hummed along. He just listened intently, picking out and naming the different instruments being played, waving his hands to conduct. The Beatles were played as loudly as allowed, with my brother accompanying on a guitar with no strings and us singing along. I know that my wide taste in music is a result of hearing so many varied tunes and songs throughout my growing up.
Most early years settings I visited and worked in in the early 1970s had a variety of nursery songs on vinyl – sing-along LPs from TV programmes such as Playschool, Rainbow and The Wombles. In time these were replaced with audio cassette tapes, but finding a particular track was always hit and miss, very tedious and time-consuming. When CDs came along it was wonderful – finding that special song was easy-peasy!
On opening my own nursery I had the usual array of nursery rhyme CDs and a couple of compilation discs of classical and folk music. After a few months I introduced some world music, marching brass bands and fairground organ discs from my own collection, and with percussion instruments added, we had our own ‘ensemble’. The rhythms were so addictive that children danced and marched along the corridors, humming tunes while playing in the sand or painting. The music was so popular that CD players were bought for each room, and our collection of music increased fivefold. Colleagues would bring in their favourite CDs and, if they were well received by the children, we would purchase nursery copies, expanding our collection with jazz, country, rock, reggae and steel bands. There was such a wide choice that if you walked from room to room you could ‘travel the world’ in a day!
There was always a quiet piece of classical music playing as children arrived at nursery. With the rush to get to work each morning, parents were often a little frazzled, and the music had a calming effect on them as well as the children. Our babies loved soothing lullabies sung to them, and often fell asleep to Chopin or Schubert, Labi Siffre or A-ha, Irish folk music or the panpipes of the Andes. Occasionally children would bring in a ‘favourite’ CD to be played – the lyrics of a few songs were inappropriate for children at primary school let alone under-fives, so we had to be selective with the huge variety of current ‘pop’ songs available! Nowadays YouTube is a great source for ‘one-offs’ of all types of musical tastes, and downloads are so cheap that the choice of what to play is virtually endless.
I’m not a musician, able to read music or play an instrument, but I am able to create situations where musical experiences are possible. You are the experts in providing opportunities for children to hear new sounds, express opinions, make decisions and develop their musical confidence, so why not explore what’s available – and enjoy the rhythms!
Wendy Bowkett is an author and ran her own private day nursery for 15 years.