ECE Resources

Empowering young children with musical play and exploration

Our webinar with Greta Bull-Crossan (Infant and Toddler headteacher, Bear Park Hobsonville) explored ways in which teachers might support and empower young children through musical play and sound exploration. In particular, the webinar emphasised how important it is to recognise and extend children’s inclination for musical behaviours and experimenting with sound.

The key highlights from the webinar include:

The importance of musical experiences for young children. Music enhances wellbeing, it is fun, it feels good, and it promotes joy. It is a carrier of culture and identity which can unite people. For young children, it is a form of communication and a way of expressing meaning. It offers a range of opportunities for exploration and the development of working theories, and introduces children to many mathematical and scientific concepts. Making sounds and playing instruments, such as manipulating a shaker or plucking a guitar string, challenges children’s physical capabilities and supports the development of fine and gross motor skills and coordination.

Musical experiences support language development. Research by neuroscientist Anita Collins has shown that between 3 and 7 years of age, children process language musically, and are carefully listening to the inflections and rhythms of language. Child-directed speech tends to be more musical, for example, and children’s early babbling reflects the musical nature of what they are hearing. Research shows that children from birth until 2 years of age develop language more quickly when they experience musical play.

Musical play can be a neglected part of the ECE curriculum. Research shows that teachers are not always confident in providing music experiences for children and are often limited by self-beliefs, such as believing they are tone-deaf. We also often assume that music is only for the highly talented and not accessible to all. Teachers may also have had limited music education in their pre-service training. However, many teachers will have funds of knowledge and experience in areas related to music such as gymnastics or dance, and will be able to build on these interests.

Teacher-led musical experiences are important. They provide an opportunity for collaboration and promote a sense of togetherness and community. They can support transition times, like washing hands before eating, and can support cultural practices such as karakia (prayer) and meeting times. Singing should be a regular part of any programme because it helps children learn language, as well as to stabilise their mood. Recorded music can be used to support singing, but it should not be a substitute for face-to-face singing with teachers.

Children also need opportunities to explore music independently and in their own way, to follow their own interests, explore their own ideas, and develop their own musical working theories. This requires an open-ended musical environment, and an appreciation for children’s everyday sound-making exploration, such as tapping pots together in the role play area or banging a cupboard door shut repeatedly. This kind of play can be supported by offering recycled and natural objects for children to poke, scratch and hit on a sound board.

Hands-on experience with instruments offers a variety of learning opportunities. Children can explore touching the different parts and materials the instrument is made of, measure an instrument against their own body, and so on. They can be offered both hand-held percussive instruments, skinned drums, wooden blocks, and melodic instruments such as bells, keyboards, violins, ukuleles, and guitars. Instruments do not need to be child-sized. While it is valuable to teach children to care for and respect instruments and agree some boundaries for children’s interactions with instruments, teachers can try to be open-minded about diverse ways of exploring music and sound-making, and value children’s experimentation. Children need not conform to the formal playing techniques of particular musical instruments.

Musical play can support the aspirations of Te Whāriki as well as more music-specific learning outcomes. Musical play supports children to achieve learning outcomes such as enhanced wellbeing, communicating ideas, collaborating with others, and showing leadership. Music-specific learning may focus on two key integrated areas, sound knowledge and listening skills. Children also increasingly come to understand that music has meaning and can create representations, and progress to making their own music and representation through sound.

It is important to think about how to interact with musical and sound-making resources as teachers. Careful observation offers opportunities to learn about children, the previous knowledge and experience they have, and the ways that they are exploring, so that teachers can recognise and intentionally support learning. For example, if children are paying attention to two particular sound-making objects on a sound board, going backwards and forwards between the two, teachers might assist children with comparing sounds. Teachers may also focus children’s attention on musical elements such as dynamics (loud or soft) or timbre (sharp or dull) and offer vocabulary to describe the sounds children are creating.

Music environments need to be safe for all children. Research shows that early childhood settings in New Zealand in urban areas are found to be beyond safe levels of noise for young children, even when children are not in attendance. Noise can be reduced by basing musical experiences outside and using mats to soften sounds. Indoors, teachers can offer soft music and sound-making opportunities such as different materials for scrunching, or jars with different objects inside to shake. Ongoing discussion within the teaching team will be important in developing routines and environments for safe music exploration. 

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