Making Music with Kids

In schools and childcare centers, teachers use music to support and engage children in the learning process. Research suggests music helps ignite cognition and memory, deepens language learning, and supports both fine and gross motor skills. 

At home, parents can also use music to support their child’s development,  help lower stress, and bring joy. Here are a few ways to incorporate a little music into your everyday routine.

Listen to Music

Add a little background music to your day by dialing into a radio station or creating a playlist and streaming it to a speaker.  Listening to classical music can lower tension and help calm anxiety.  Says Jane Collingswold at PsychCentral, “Listening to music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies, especially slow, quiet classical music. 

This type of music can have a beneficial effect on our physiological functions, slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormones.”

For children who need help settling into rest time, a quiet, gentle series of lullabies can set the mood and encourage sleep.  My all-time favorite rest time CD is the Bejing Angelic Choir’s Chinese Lullabies.

Sing Songs

Take a break from the normal routine and enjoy a sing-along. Toddlers delight in circle time, which can include silly songs with lots of body movement.  Some of my favorites are “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, and “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”.  You can also incorporate singing into other family activities.  Riding in the car? Start a sing-along, complete with hand motions and silly faces

Make Instruments

Take it a step further and add instruments to your family sing-a-long. Create your own family band with instruments made from found objects. From simple storage container shakers to pan flutes and cereal box guitars,  Red Tricycle has put together a collection of 21 instruments you can make from things you have at home.

Have a Dance Party

Once the music is flowing, combine gross motor activity and music through dance. Turn up some rhythmic dance music and get moving. Or enjoy an acapella version of the Hokie Pokie for family fun that will have you all smiling.

Take a Deeper Dive

Have older kids? Help them explore the life and discography of a favorite composer or band. Check out your local library for materials, or search for information on the internet.  Add the composer’s music to a playlist and incorporate it into your family music listening (and dancing!).  You can also choose a period in history and see what you can find out about the music and musical instruments of that time period.  Or explore the music of a particular region or country.  Invite your kids to compare the music you find in your explorations to the music your family typically listens to.  How are they different?  What is similar about them? 

Learn to Play an Instrument

For the truly adventurous and dedicated, learning to play an instrument can provide a lifetime of musical enjoyment. It also builds confidence and improves patience.  Says classicfm.com, “Learning to play an instrument stimulates the brain, improving functions like memory and abstract reasoning skills, which are essential for maths and science.”  Learning a musical instrument takes time and commitment, but can bring joy that lasts a lifetime.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

A Beautiful Life

Long-time readers (I like to think that I have one) will remember when I raved about some of my favorite authors of children’s books.

Well, recently I came across this great appreciation in The Atlantic of Barbara Cooney, probably my favorite of all. Cooney, the author of Miss Rumphius, Ox-Cart Man, and other classics has a singular style (her illustrations, always recognizable as her own, graced books by other authors such as Alice McLerran’s Roxaboxen) and a stolid refusal to “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Miss Rumphius (1982) has long been my go-to answer when someone asks about my favorite children’s book (I get asked! However, no one asks about my favorite book overall except my own kids; I just say Moby Dick because I have to have an answer. It’s good. You should read it). In the book, a young girl narrates the life of her great-(great?)-aunt Alice Rumphius. Alice, whose own grandfather had tasked her, around the turn of the 20th Century, with “making the world more beautiful,” lived a life that alternated between globetrotting exploration and bookish solitude.

What I love about the book is what separates it from, well, pretty much any other children’s book I can think of. Our heroine spends several pages in the middle of the story recovering from an injured back. This very realistic adult situation is shocking in a quiet way: that can happen, can’t it? And yet she continues, in spite of and around her new limitations, to live a beautiful life.

Though she clearly had friends and companions along the way (one, unmentioned but seen on a snowy mountainside, is a dude), Miss Rumphius remains unmarried and childless and apparently comfortable with the oddness that would have surrounded this situation for women of her time. In fact, she goes on to be known as “that crazy old lady” due to her carefree pursuit of aesthetic expression (in the form of planting thousands and thousands of lupines across the countryside). In the end, our young narrator herself is given the task of making the world a more beautiful place. How will she do it?

And how, reader, the implication goes, will you?

Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year-olds, their older sisters continue to put them –new acquisitions and old favorites alike– in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused on what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma, or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage.

On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, but it also engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

Right Now, in a Galaxy Right Here

Let this complete a trilogy of posts in which I fret about whether and when to introduce my daughters to various works of art/media that I loved growing up. As you recall, I have spent way too much time and effort feeling ambivalent about this, because what really happens is that we can’t make our kids like what we like anyway.

Anyway, now that Star Trek had been met with one enthusiastic embrace (my 12 year-old, who genuinely loves the story lines and is now reading science fiction, which I never thought would happen), and three blank stares (the other three kids), I decided to give in to their curiosity about Star Wars.

After all, it’s not just a retro phenomenon, in the way that you can find a replica (of inferior quality; I’ve tried it) of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game at Target. No, Star Wars has been loosed from the bonds of nostalgia and time and is now part of the genuine background fabric of our culture. Which is exactly what George Lucas was shooting for (and I promise I won’t get into what I think about how Lucas has, um…managed his own artistic legacy because 1:) we don’t have time and 2.) I would have to use language that is not acceptable in this forum. You can dig up my old LiveJournal feed if you really want to know what I think).

Face it, Star Wars is everywhere. People have stickers of the insignia of the Rebellion on their cars and either you get it or you don’t, but Darth Vader is now at least as recognizable an icon as Santa Claus. Remember when we thought it was quaint that Ronald Reagan called his anti-missile defense system after the franchise?  Nobody blinks anymore.

But how much longer could I let my kids exist in a veritable cave of cultural ignorance while all this stuff was going on? So, I thought we’d give it a go. I had a couple of goals in transitioning my kids into the filmic world. One was to explain the difference between science fiction (“in the future, we might…” which is what Star Trek is, at least at its best) and science fantasy (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” which is what Star Wars clearly is). This was more or less successful.

Next was to try to find a VCR because I still have video copies of the original trilogy–you know exactly what I mean when I say “original trilogy,” don’t you? Even if you’re not at all nerdy–pre-Special Edition (ie: pre-all the extraneous CGI effects that got crammed into every corner of every frame of the old movies). In this I did not succeed. But the local library had the DVDs and they weren’t too scratched up, so off we went, with Episode IV: A New Hope (otherwise known as Just Star Wars).

Here’s how it shook down: all were riveted, though my six year-old kept turning to me with her eyes crossed and shrugging in an exaggerated way; she later said that it was mostly just things flashing by really fast. Which I guess is true.

Yesterday we watched The Empire Strikes Back, which as you know is probably the only film in the entire series that could conceivably make someone cry. I found that it still gets me just as deeply as it did the first time (“Luke, Luke, don’t–it’s a trap! It’s a trap!” “I love you.” “I know.” “I am your father.” “Nooooooaaaahghghghhh”). Etc. This is why it’s important to pay attention to what your kids are watching. That stuff sticks with you.

I debriefed with my two oldest daughters after the viewing. I asked if they were totally shocked to learn that Vader was Luke’s father. The ten year-old replied, “I wasn’t, really. I’ve read tons of stories where all kinds of things happen.” I didn’t know what to say. Except that for these girls, who have read  The Odyssey and Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Lord of the Rings before watching Star Wars, these films are not, as they were for me, founding myths. They’re just all the old stories in a blender, flashing by really fast.

Which, you know? Is still pretty cool.

The Family Taste

A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children.

In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid, I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.”

Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into English. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

Bored Games

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Reading Ahead

I’m about to come across as not only a curmudgeon, but a hypocrite. Let me explain.

I learned to read quite early. I credit the constant presence of books and, of course, Sesame Street for helping me along with this. And as soon as I could I started reaching for books that were way beyond my emotional maturity. I may have been able to read, as an eight-year-old, my dad’s James Bond and Conan novels, but I was not able to process them. This trend continued as I grew up, with the result that I had “book knowledge” of the adult realm of drugs, sex, and the intricacies of suffering that I was in no way prepared to live in reality. If I always felt that I was getting away with something, it’s because I was. Only in later years—and especially now that I’m a parent—did I realize that, rather than gaining something from my transgressions, I actually gave up a fair bit of my childhood.

Things are different now after the explosion of what is now called Young Adult literature, or YA. Spurred on by the success of the (wonderful) Harry Potter novels, the category of books featuring adolescent protagonists, largely under the umbrella of science fiction, horror and fantasy but sometimes taking in historical fiction or even stark realism, increased exponentially. As with most styles in popular art, some of it is brilliant, much of it quite good, and most mediocre to awful (this is not the place for me to weigh in on the relative merits of YA books you have probably heard of and/or read).

The new thing about this, and something I have been noticing more and more, is how often younger readers have been encouraged to pick up YA books under the assumption that, since they are not adult books, it is always a good idea for kids to read them. But more than ever before, there is such a wide spectrum of psychological and emotional content, relationship, and identity issues in YA literature that it is risky to assume that a given book is appropriate for your young reader simply because of the section of the library or bookstore it was found in.

Let me be clear: the concern here is not that there are books that address all of these things, or that kids may benefit greatly from finding them portrayed in fiction because both of these are, I think, very good things. The issue is that readers who may be intellectually, but not emotionally, ready to take on a particular subject matter will at best not get anything out of it (as I came up empty with the adventures of James Bond) and come away with confusion or misunderstanding, and at worst could be traumatized. Heck, even the Harry Potter series becomes increasingly dark and emotionally complex as its characters age toward adulthood.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. There are summaries and reviews online for every book that’s out there, though this can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to look (in my experience nothing is more full of contradictions than two reviews of the same novel). A reliable place for this information is Common Sense Media, a website offering “independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.”

Another great way to find out about what our kids are taking in is much more low tech. You can take a look at the book, of course: read the jacket copy and see if there is a recommended age range. Skim it if you can. Or better yet, talk to them about it!

Music to Their Ears

 

I’m a bit of a music geek. Much of my free time is spent discovering music old and new, mainstream and obscure, making mixes (on CDs, because I’m old), reading, thinking, and writing about music – and, whenever I can do it – listening.

I also have four daughters, and as much as I want to share my enthusiasm with them, this has proved to be tricky. For one thing, much of what I listen to is simply not appropriate for children (the same can be said for what still gets played on Top 40 radio). For another, my girls are free with their opinions and have made it clear what they want to hear and what they don’t (my seven-year-old is alone among her sisters in appreciating a good synthesizer).

What works for them? We play a lot of classical music during the day. It has been claimed that playing Bach and Vivaldi and especially Mozart can have a positive effect on a child’s brain development; and though the evidence for this has been disputed, there’s no doubt that it makes a nice backdrop for them as they work and play. Jazz and folk music have always been popular in our house. While the kids love the soothing sounds of New Age music, I…don’t, so much.

It is only recently that my kids have discovered the musical mainstream, in the form of the soundtrack to Frozen. You are probably familiar with this, especially if you have girls. There is nothing like hearing four children sing “Let It Go” at the same time in four different tempos and levels of volume.

Children are always listening and will soak up whatever is around them. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents playing Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and not surprisingly they stuck with me. It made me very aware, as a parent, of what I am exposing them to. So what’s the best way to introduce music to kids?

  • It’s important to help children connect what they’re hearing to the people making the music. If you have musicians in your family, let your kids see and hear them playing instruments.
  • If you can, practice an instrument, any instrument, at home. I own a banjo, and regardless of my lack of skill, it is good for them to see me struggle with it. After all, we want them to know that we take on skills through practice and that failing is part of the process (I am good at failing on banjo).
  • Show them performances on YouTube and point out what’s happening. Help them to identify the sounds that they’re hearing and where they come from.
  • Encourage them to make music on their own, whether it be through the music program at their school, or with instruments (bought or made) at home. Countless studies have made connections between music-making and other skills, especially math and problem-solving.
  • Most importantly, sing! Make up songs for bedtime, cleanup time, bath time, and crossing the street. Sing lullabies. And yes, sing songs from Frozen. Using songs to prepare children for chores, transitions and other routines has proven to be very effective.