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Let the Music Play!

Music has power and meaning that go beyond words for babies and toddlers. It has an almost magical ability to promote various development domains in children. Music also supports the formation of important brain connections that are being established over the first three years of life.

Music early in life

Much like every other learning experiences in early childhood, music and music activities simultaneously promote development in multiple domains in young children. Singing a lullaby while rocking a baby stimulates early language development, promotes attachment, and supports an infant’s growing spatial awareness, (for example, when the child experiences her body moving with the sound of the music).

Tip: Be intentional about integrating music into your child’s daily routines. Think it through – What do you want your child to achieve from this music experience? This question may help you design and choose activities to support specific developmental achievements.

Establishing and practicing self-regulation

Think about the power of lullabies. It has the capability to soothe very young children anytime, anywhere. Case study: When Kiara, 2, was in an amusement park one afternoon with her mom, she was eager to get onto one of the rides for toddlers. Her mom obliged and after inserting the coin tokens into the allocated slot, the ride began, with the accompanying song, the famous nursery rhyme “The Wheels on the Bus”. In less than 60 seconds into the ride, little Kiara apparently dozed off into dreamland! Only after a few puzzled minutes did her mum realize that “The Wheels on the Bus” is actually the lullaby Kiara’s grandmother sings to her everyday to get her to sleep!

Point to ponder: When adults use music to help babies and small children calm down, they are supporting the development of self-regulation (the ability to manage one’s emotional state and physical needs). The experience of being soothed also helps children learn to soothe themselves.

Understanding emotions

Singing about feelings can help babies and toddlers get acquainted with the words that can be used to describe their emotional experiences. Children’s tunes like “If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands” and “I Look In The Mirror” are capable of educating children about different kinds emotions. Music evokes feelings even when there are no words. Studies have even found that babies are able, under some conditions, to differentiate between happy and sad musical excerpts!

Is it my turn yet?

In a music class, a child can’t help but learn the virtue of patience and also how to wait for his or her turn. Picture little musicians passing instruments back and forth to a teacher or toddlers taking turns with the tambourine. Children and their teachers also have to take turns playing musical solos while the others listen.

Fun learning: Call-and-response songs such as “Who Ate the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” or “Old McDonald Had A Farm” also encourages taking turns in responding in a song.

Developing cultural awareness.

Cultural based songs and tunes nurture children’s feelings of safety and security and validates the importance of their culture and language. Playing songs and using musical styles from children’s home cultures create continuity between home and the school or the enrichment centre the child is attending.

Body awareness.

Moving different parts of a baby’s body and encouraging toddlers to move their own bodies as you sing a song—for example, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”—helps them learn that these body parts are indeed part of them!

Learning the art of cooperating while making friends

Music is often a team effort, with each participant adding his sound or voice to the mix. Imagine a parade of little ones creating awesome melodies with their instruments as they march through the kindergarten or child care center. Music experiences, in which children use their own voices or play instruments, are especially good choices for very young children. This is because music activities typically do not require sharing — a skill most toddlers are still working on. However, they still encourage positive peer interactions and can form the basis of toddlers’ first friendships.

Physical (motor) skills

Be it the small muscles of the hands used to hold a drumstick, or the large muscles in the legs and arms as children dance, or even the muscles in the lips used to form words in a melody, music is a physical activity. In one way or the other, music supports:

Gross Motor Development – When people think about music, dancing is one of the first activities that come to mind. Dancing (to both fast and slow music) and making musical sounds by waving colorful scarves in the air or jumping up and down are all melodic ways that very young children can build the muscles in their arms, legs, and trunk.

Fine Motor Development – Dancing to songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” (among many others) are perfect examples of ways music can support the development of small muscles in children’s hands and fingers — the same muscles they will use for writing and drawing when they are older.

Balance – In moving one’s body to music, children can stand while swaying or shifting their weight from one foot or side of the body to the other — which means they are learning to balance. Imagine the song “Hokey Pokey” or “Let’s Do the Twist” being played in a room full of little children who are attempting to twist, shake and move with the melody while trying to stay balanced and not fall over. Then again, falling over is always half the fun, isn’t it?

Bilateral coordination/crossing the midline – Bilateral coordination is the ability to use both sides of the body together, like when climbing stairs or playing a piano. This skill requires both sides of the brain to communicate to coordinate the body’s movements.

Thinking (cognitive) skills

Music quite naturally provides opportunities to practice patterns, math concepts, and symbolic thinking skills, all in the context of a joyful noise. This is what makes music an attractive, engaging activity for very young children. There are many ways to participate in musical experiences. Music and music lessons are easily adapted for a range of developmental levels and abilities, making it perfect for mixed-age settings as well as family-based child care programs.

Counting – Many songs introduce numbers and counting: “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, “This Old Man” and “The Animals Came in Two by Two” are just a few examples. The rhythm and repetition of songs may make it easier for very young children to remember the name and sequence of number patterns.

Memory sharpener – Music holds a powerful place in our memory. Even babies as young as eight months old have shown recognition of a familiar piece of music after a two-week delay. Providing consistent experiences with the same song (at the same time, such as nap time) helps young babies remember and link that music with a particular experience.

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