Pat Lee begins her series on developing music within the Foundation Stage by looking at using music to enhance children’s social and emotional development

The new school year brings with it a world of possibilities, opportunities and challenges, both for us and the children in our care. For some, it will be the first year of a long teaching career and for others, the last before a well-earned retirement. This may be the year that brings an Ofsted or early years inspection so maybe now is a good time for a health check. Open wide and sing ahhh… How’s your music?

To be honest, I doubt that music is the first thing you worry about when assessing the quality of provision for the children in your care. You might check your book corner, equipment for weighing and measuring, outdoor play area, sand tray and art materials… anything but music. After all, music is only one small part of one section of the Foundation Stage Curriculum. As long as you sing some songs and provide opportunities for the children to play instruments and move to music, how much more should you be doing?

Problems and challenges

The problem with music is that most practitioners do not receive enough input during their training for them to be really confident about planning and delivering music sessions. One of those on the last Inset course I tutored did not know the difference between pulse and rhythm and nobody knew the ideal pitch range of a song for young children. Many bemoan the fact that they are unable to play the piano, but unaccompanied singing is by far the best when working with young children.

Loosely following QCA guidelines and hoping that it will be enough to keep everyone happy not only short-changes the children in terms of their musical development, but also fails to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to enhance children’s development and learning across the whole of the curriculum.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing any practitioner is the selection of suitable rhymes, songs and singing games. This task, however, is made very much simpler if you select musical activities to fulfil one of three distinct purposes:

  • to develop musical skills
  • to facilitate social and emotional development
  • to support learning in other areas of the curriculum.

Much of your material will fall into more than one category but, for the moment, let’s leave aside the development of musical skills and look at using songs and rhymes to facilitate social and emotional development, and to support learning across the whole curriculum.

What to choose…

From pancakes to polar bears, whichever theme you have chosen, there will be songs or rhymes you can include. In the UK, the beginning of the school year coincides with preparations for harvest.

Sadly, this is also the time when many children will be forced to struggle with the words and tunes of harvest hymns and songs when a quick flick through Elizabeth Matterson’s This Little Puffin will reveal such gems as ‘Chop, Chop, Choppity- Chop’. Or you can pen your own ditty, such as:

Here is a carrot for me to chop. I chop off the bottom, I chop off the top. Lots of carrots for my tea.

How many carrots can you see?

Sitting in a circle, the children take turns to name a fruit or vegetable that everyone pretends to chop. Cutting off the bottom and top gives a chance to talk about roots and leaves, and if somebody chops their finger an imaginary plaster will work wonders and serve to remind everyone of the need for care when using tools of any kind. As the children choose what to chop you can explain that plants need rain and sun to grow.

Many children will take part in an activity session that involves cutting up fruits and vegetables, allowing them to see, smell, touch and taste both the familiar and unfamiliar. The children will continue to chop their imaginary fruits and vegetables long after the real ones have been eaten so teaching this rhyme extends the activity. The many repetitions give an opportunity for practising particular sounds and words and taking turns encourages social interaction.

It’s easy to see how using this rhyme has helped the children to expand their knowledge and understanding of the world, engage in imaginative play, extend their vocabulary, improve their articulation and, if you count pieces of vegetable as they are put into the pot, practise their number skills.

Happily the chopping movements the children make as they say the rhyme are a great way for them to develop a sense of pulse so this rhyme also aids their musical development. But what if you had chosen ‘Oranges and Lemons’ instead?

The traditional game involves secrets and whispering and the final tug-of-war results in failure for one ‘side’. The tune, with its constant leaping about, is too difficult for little ones to sing accurately and its triple meter makes it unsuitable for any straightforward locomotor action.

Singing games are nonetheless invaluable for helping children to develop socially and emotionally. It would be a shame if these well-known singing games were allowed to die out but ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is best left until the children are at least mid way through year 1.

Singing games that are suitable for this age group include ‘The Farmer’s In His Dell’, ‘Poor Jenny Sits A-Weeping’, and ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’. They may not fit in with your theme but they will encourage the children to practise the social skills of sharing, working together, taking turns and choosing a partner.

Counting rhymes and songs can be used to clarify the concept of number. Some will help with musical development and others will not, but in terms of mathematical development, all may be useful. A lot of counting rhymes and songs fall into the category of finger play, which also develops fine motor skills.

To enhance physical development, a simple song like ‘Jim Along Josie’, where the action changes for each verse, lends itself to the inclusion of a variety of movements; jumping, skipping, hopping etc, and not many children can resist improving their spatial awareness and bodily control when flying in and out of the ‘windows’ as they become the bluebird for ‘Here Comes a Bluebird’. Using percussion instruments to accompany simple songs will help with hand-eye coordination and drums, tambourines and xylophones should also be available in the music area.

The Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage tells us to ‘sing with children frequently’. For some practitioners this may mean once a week and for others, several times a day. But what is best for the children?

It’s good policy to plan twice-weekly music sessions built around songs and activities designed to develop the children’s musical ability. These sessions should follow a recognised structure so that the children know roughly what is going to happen.

Begin with a greeting or a song to signal the start of the music session. You can keep the same song for many weeks and use it to gather the children from wherever they happen to be. Next should come an action song, rhyme, or other warming up activity that is already well known. Its purpose is to prepare the body, voice and mind for what is to follow. The children will then be ready to practise something that is fairly new. The session should finish with one or two favourite songs and a listening activity.

Use this listening time to sing to the children. You don’t have to be a trained singer, just confident enough to hold a tune. Talk about the song; which country does it come from? What do the words mean? What kind of song is it? You can sing a song that the children will soon be learning or, alternatively, even a very simple tune played on an instrument can be a magical experience for children who wouldn’t otherwise hear instruments being played live.

Asking very young children to sit quietly and listen to a recorded extract is never a good idea. Where are they going to look? How are they going to make sense of what they hear? Recorded music can be used when you want the children to dance, wave coloured scarves or become lions as they listen to an extract from ‘Carnival of the Animals’.

The whole session should last approximately 20 to 25 minutes but be prepared to modify your ideas, try out suggestions from the children or abandon your plan completely. If something is not working it’s best to stop and do something else. You can try it again in the next session or return to it at a later date.

In addition to the timetabled music session and the songs you have chosen to support learning across the curriculum, you could add a good morning song and a goodbye song at the beginning and end of each day. Invent a tidy away song, a going out to play song and a wash your hands before you eat song. You can use easy well-known tunes to create all kinds of songs.

Tune – ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’

Now it’s time to wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands. Now it’s time to wash our hands, before we have our lunch.

When one of the children has some exciting news; a new brother or sister, moving house or granny coming to stay etc, it will be all the more special if it is celebrated in song or rhyme.

Tune – ‘Merrily We Roll Along’

Peter has a new brother, new brother, new brother.
Peter has a new brother, hip hooray

Peter’s brother cries a lot, cries a lot, cries a lot.
Peter’s brother cries a lot, all night long.

Poor old Peter’s very tired, very tired, very tired.
Poor old Peter’s very tired. Look at Peter yawn.

We are all familiar with the use of music and song for celebrating religious festivals and, along with harvest, the autumn term brings with it the familiar strains of ‘Away in A Manger’ being murdered in many an early years setting. It is what is expected, and the parents will love it no matter how awful the singing.

Those among us who had, until then, been conscientious in choosing only the best and most appropriate repertoire for our young singers will once again be forced spend the whole of January repairing the damage. I am often asked if there is a better way and my answer is an emphatic yes!

Look again at those songs the children already know; the ones about everything from pancakes to polar bears. How many can be recycled for Christmas with just a change of words? Swap the coloured scarves for pieces of white net curtain and the children can create a wonderful dancing snowstorm to any suitable piece of music.

If a nativity play is required it can be narrated by an adult with maybe just a line or two from the children. The addition of some very simple costumes, a couple of songs, an angel dance and some improvised star music will transform the nightmare into a magical Christmas performance that the children, as well as their parents, can enjoy.

Fun for everyone

So think carefully about how you select songs, rhymes, singing games and musical activities and ask yourself if you are really making the most of the ones you have chosen. Find out if everyone working with the children in your nursery and reception classes is confident in their ability to plan and deliver music sessions, or would some further training be beneficial?

Above all, try to ensure that music is fun for everyone: staff and children.  

Some useful books, both available on Amazon

  • This Little Puffin Compiled by Elizabeth Matterson Puffin Books, Penguin Books Ltd ISBN 0-14-034048-3

  • Singing Games and Rhymes for Early Years Compiled by Lucinda Geoghegan Glasgow: The National Youth Choir of Scotland. ISBN 0-9538261-0-4