Patricia Lee continues her exploration of music for young children.

Rhymes, songs and singing games are valuable tools to enhance learning across the whole curriculum, and to support children’s social and emotional development, but that is only part of the story. We also have a duty to plan sessions that will enable the children in our care to develop their musical skills.

It goes without saying that music sessions should be fun, but for planning to be really effective, there are three basic principals to keep in mind:

  1. The children must participate.
  2. Songs and rhymes must take account of the children’s age and stage of musical development.
  3. Activities must form a progressive sequence based on appropriate learning objectives.

Acquiring any musical skill is a three-stage process, although early years practitioners need only be concerned with the first stage.

In the first stage, a musical skill or concept is experienced first-hand. In the second stage, a skill that has been experienced is understood intellectually, and in the third stage, skills that have been understood are practised and perfected.

Participation is vital, but young children must be allowed to watch and listen until they feel ready to join in, which most will do without giving any particular cause for concern. However, there may be one or two who continue to sit on the sidelines long after everyone else is singing, moving and playing instruments.

Fearful children will often join in more quickly if they know what is going to happen, and this is the advantage of working within a familiar structure: a warm-up using known material, something less familiar, one or two favourites and a listening activity to finish the session.

Often all that is needed is for a child to ‘take the plunge’ and make a first contribution, even if that contribution does not seem to be related to any musical skill. A child who is hesitant about reciting ‘Jack be nimble’ may be more than happy to show off his or her jumping skills, especially if the child’s own name is used;

Kerry be nimble, Kerry be quick.

Kerry jump over the candlestick.

Some children are keen to contribute their ideas and may even respond to an outstretched hand and an invitation to show everyone else what to do.

Feel the ‘pulse’

A sense of ‘pulse’ is the foundation upon which all other musical skills are built. Without it, singing or playing together becomes impossible and a rhythm can only be perceived as a rhythm when performed in relation to a pulse or steady beat. ‘Pulse work’ then, is the place to begin.

Spoken rhymes are a very natural way for children to enter the world of music. They lead them from the known to the unknown and give a direct experience of ‘pulse’, rhythm, phrase and structure, uncomplicated by melody and harmony.

Chanting, ‘Cobbler, cobbler mend my shoe’ as they hammer on their shoes, or ‘Chop, chop, choppity-chop’, as they chop imaginary vegetables, will give the children a very strong kinaesthetic experience of performing an action on the pulse.

This is also a good time to introduce some simple percussion instruments: a drum, tambourine, triangle and some egg shakers. Show the children the correct way to hold and play the instruments and make sure everyone has a turn before you choose who is to accompany the rhyme or song.

Rocking to the pulse can be encouraged by inviting the children to bring a teddy bear to the music session. As they chant ‘Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around’, they bounce the teddies on their knees and help them to do the actions. Then, when the teddies are tired, they can be rocked to sleep with ‘Bye baby bunting’.

Locomotor actions begin with walking or marching to a beat:

Marching, marching down the street, New red shoes upon my feet. Marching, marching all around,

Listen to the marching sound.

Children can choose the colour of their shoes. They might even choose to wear old shoes, or odd shoes!

When singing or chanting rhymes, train the children to keep the pulse by patting their knees, tapping their heads, clapping or clicking, or in any other way you, or they, can suggest. Eventually they will keep the pulse without even thinking about it, which is how it should be. When they begin working on rhythm, they will need to have a constant internal pulse.

Rhythm and rhyme

A rhyme will need to be well known before the activities start to include working with rhythm. A favourite in my classroom is ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’. After the rhyme has been learned and the children have practised keeping the pulse in a variety of ways, I divide them into two groups. One group claps and chants the numbers and the other group take over to speak and perform the actions. Then we try with the numbers being spoken loudly and the actions spoken softly, or vice versa, and finally we add instruments, but this time playing the rhythm instead of the pulse. (The rhythm of the numbers is the same as the pulse.)

It takes many sessions to progress from simply saying the rhyme and keeping the pulse, to working in two groups with pulse and rhythm.
If at any stage you feel the children are not ready to move on to the next activity in your sequence, you can begin to use the song or rhyme, and some of the known activities, as a warm-up at the beginning of your music sessions. At some stage in the future, the children will enjoy returning to the material and progress still further with the activities.

Once you become accustomed to planning progressive activities using the material you have chosen, your planning will become more focused and your music sessions will be more effective and enjoyable for everyone.