Patricia Lee explains how supporting children’s musical creativity can contribute to their sense of self-worth and emotional wellbeing

Small children spend much of their time playing and most have no fears about the challenge facing them as they set about painting a picture or modelling with play dough. Children are equally at home when improvising their own songs and playing with musical instruments, although putting them in the spotlight without first preparing the ground can turn a budding composer into a shrinking violet. Before they can make their own music, children need to have some experience of rhythm, pitch, dynamics, tempo and timbre and this they acquire by interacting musically with adults.

Early experiences
Babies play with the sounds they hear, imitating them and engaging in ‘conversations’ with parents or carers. A game of pat-a-cake, where the adult claps the baby’s hands, begins to teach him about keeping a steady pulse. Small children learn about dynamics and expression when lullabies are sung softly but knee-bouncing songs and rhymes are given a much more robust quality. The songs and music that a child sings and hears introduce rhythm patterns, phrases and structures. As the child grows, his repertoire increases until he can draw on a range of musical devices: repeated phrases, melodic motives and stock endings.

Building a musical repertoire
A practitioner’s first task is to introduce children to a range of music. Songs should be simple enough for the children to sing well but can be drawn from many different genres and cultures. Recorded music can be played when children are painting or dancing, and older children or parents who play instruments are often happy to give short demonstrations.

Planned music sessions that give children opportunities to work creatively are important for modelling creative thinking and introducing the language of creativity. Adding instruments to songs and stories is a good way to introduce experimentation. Encourage children to try several instruments until they find the one that makes just the right sound and praise them, not only for the choices they make, but also for sharing their ideas and showing you how they think the instrument should be played. If, after being played, the chosen instrument is rejected because it does not make the right sound to be for example, the giant’s footsteps, or Goldilocks running away, ask if anyone can suggest another part of the story where it could be used. Children will soon get used to the idea that there are no ‘right answers’, just choices to be made.

Setting up an area for musical creativity
An effective way of giving children the time they need ‘…to explore, experiment, practice, repeat and consolidate ideas an skills’, is to have a set up a music area containing:

  • instruments: safe, well designed and with a good sound (not toys)
  • sound makers: a collection of objects that make sounds – keys, coins, metal chains
  • tape recorder: able to record voices and play tapes
  • music for listening: a selection of songs, nursery rhymes and instrumental music
  • visual reminders: songbooks and pictures
  • puppets and props that have been used in music sessions
  • paper and crayons: children may want to invent their own music notation, or draw as they listen
  • safety mirror: children benefit from having the opportunity to watch themselves as they dance, sing or play instruments

These resources need to be changed regularly, though not too often, and should include a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Managing the creative music area
Impose a sensible limit on the number of children using the music area at any one time. This will help to keep the noise down but will still allow them to interact and create joint compositions. For safety reasons it is often necessary to make sure that instruments stay in the music area but during fine weather an outdoor music area is perfect for louder instruments and maybe a marching band. To explore the possibilities of quieter instruments, a pop-up play tent can provide just the right calming environment.

Valuing children’s musical creativity
It is important to remember that anything we create is part of ourselves, and our reactions to a child’s creative work will convey messages about his or her value as a human being. So as we listen and observe the children at their ‘work’, we must find ways of communicating to them that their ideas have value. This can be done by simply asking a child if you may join in with the song he has just created, or by becoming a willing partner in a musical conversation.

Even given enough time, and appropriate skills and resources, children will not develop their creative abilities unless they feel safe enough to take risks and make mistakes. It is the practitioner who is responsible for creating an environment that supports musical exploration and experimentation, and where the emphasis is on enjoyment. When the adult creates the right environment, the children will have the freedom to discover, and enjoy using their musical creativity.