Today, I would like to share some specific music activities that anyone can do with a class of very young children. These activities can be done by early childhood educators who are not music educators, by caretakers and certainly by parents. They are all designed to build musical skills and concepts in young minds.
Because toddlers will try to imitate what they see and hear others do, we want to present the child with musical stimuli. One of the best of these is to place the child on your lap, and gently bounce him or her to the beat of music that you sing. If you have a class of toddlers with their parents present, have each parent place their own child on his or her lap. Choose a song that all of the adults are likely to know, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and bounce the child as you sing. A variation on this is to do as I have just described and in addition, move both arms down on every other beat so that the hands contact the knees. This assigns a motion to each strong beat, and so encourages the child to experience not only the beat but the meter too. Infants will eventually try to time their own arm motions to the music. Although they probably won’t get the timing right for some time, just the fact that they are thinking about the meter and trying to time it out is an important stage in their musical cognitive development. A child can also be rocked with the same affect, as each forward motion coincides with strong beats, and each back motion coincides with a weak beat. This prepares the child to sing and chant with accurate meter later on. I’m not expecting him or her to respond in any particular way; if he does fine, if he doesn’t, fine. At this stage in the child’s life, I’m just exposing him, modeling for him, providing a musical environment for him to absorb.
Now at the toddler stages, we’re going to proceed without a particular plan. We’re just responding to the child. Just like with my infant daughter all those years ago, if she keeps smiling, I’ll keep singing. I’ll sing as many different things as I can think of, but they’ll all be predictable, simple, and they’ll all come from my smiling face. She can see me singing, she can see me breathing, she can see me moving, That’s what I want, I want her to see everything I’m doing—that’s the modeling that’s so important in these early years. If the child starts making noises, I’ll listen with full attention on her, but I will keep singing;. I don’t want her to learn that her vocal response stops the music, because then she’ll stop responding in order to keep me singing. Occasional pauses are good, as long as they don’t always occur when the child begins making sounds. If the child is quiet, I may sing a short phrase and then pause and see if she’ll respond. We may get a babble conversation going, which would be great. The combination of interaction with adult and the stimulus of what is being sung will often produce a vocalized response that is purposeful to the child. You won’t understand what the child is saying or singing, but it is meaningful to the child. Just watch the child’s face. You’ll see a difference in the level of attention given to what is being done. If no vocal response is made, that’s okay. The child is really in control. My job at this point is to provide the stimulus. If there is no response, I’ll just keep doing my thing. When she has lost interest, or when I feel it’s time for me to do something different, I’ll go to something different. If I’ve just sung a song, or a lot of patterns, I’ll switch to rhythms, or exploring the sound of a rattle, or some kind of locomotor movement.
I might play recorded music for the infant. That’s okay to do, as long as that’s not all you do. Very young infants often will respond to lively recorded music with random movements. Their arms will start moving, and their legs will start kicking. It’s not synchronized to the music, an infant is too young to do that, but the random movement is, nevertheless, a response from the child’s point of view to the music begin heard.