Teaching Music to Preschool Children
Most preschool programs place a heavy emphasis on school preparation, with instruction in written language, math, and life skills. Each of these disciplines is important, but make sure you are teaching music to your preschool children.
Studies show that children exposed to even a little bit of musical training early in life have less trouble with reading skills as they enter school. (1)
Knowing this, it only makes sense to expose your young children to good music as much as possible.
The Method of Teaching Music to Children
Working with preschool-aged children for the past 23 years, I saw first-hand the impact of music on their development. Our home daycare incorporated “music time” in the form of singing and instrumental music, as often as possible. Children as young as three years old were taught to play rhythm instruments and handbells in such a way as to make real music and not just “noise”.
By the time they are 5 years old, a child that has been regularly trained in music can sing in a choir and play instrumental music in a performance setting. These children are more than ready to begin formal music training in piano. Teaching music to young children who have not been exposed to music requires more effort.
Some younger kids may struggle with formal lessons. Some may even benefit from waiting a couple years before they begin. Regardless at which age they begin, musical training will always benefit a child.
It is true that the children who begin formal lessons at an early age generally rely on “playing by ear” as opposed to sight reading their music. Care should be given by music instructors to make sure the children learn both techniques. However, ear training is difficult, and children who grow into it naturally through early exposure to music will struggle less in this area.
How Do You Go About Teaching Music?
Children learn to sing in the same manner they learn to speak, through imitation. From birth, a child responds to sounds in the environment and seeks to express himself vocally. It is from these expressions that the foundations of singing are laid.
Marvin Greenberg’s research into the development of the child voice points out five important developmental stages young children experience as they learn to sing. (2)
- First Vocalizations
- Vocal Experimentation and Sound Imitation
- The Approximation of Singing
- Singing Within a Limited Range
- Singing Within an Expanded Range
First Vocalizations (Birth to 3 months)
From the moment they are born, babies develop a repertoire of sounds that help them interact with those around them. What mother does not understand the difference in a baby’s cry for attention and their cry of pain? These earliest cries, coos, and sighs form a basis for the development of spoken language and vocal music.
Vocal Experimentation and Sound Imitation (3 mos – 18 mos)
During this stage the child enjoys experimenting with his or her own voice. Nothing is cuter than listening to the gurgles and squeals of children this age. Later, between six and nine months, musical babbling begins, especially when an adult or older child sings to the infant. While interacting, the child’s eyes will fix on the face of the person singing. Afterwards, they often attempt to make cooing noises in conjunction with the sounds they are hearing.
Toward the end of this stage, some of baby’s first words will appear. “Da da” and “Ma Ma” are often some of the first sounds made, and are often a result of anxious parents coaching the child over and over again to make those sounds.
The musical babbles of children this age have definite pitch but usually lack rhythm. Tones are frequently repeated, move in small intervals, or slide downward. Pitches appear to center around Middle C, but can encompass as many as eight scale tones.
The Approximation of Singing (18 months to 3 years)
As the child grows, babbling ceases and speech development progresses rapidly. “Songs” have rhythm and a wider range of pitch intervals.
At about 2 years old, the child will begin to learn songs he or she hears. Even though they may not understand the lyrics, they can often imitate the words, then rhythmic patterns, and finally, pitches. With singing models and some adult guidance, most children can imitate simple songs by age three.
Singing With Limited Range (3 years to 4 years)
Around age 3, children exposed to singing on a regular basis, begin to sing accurately within a limited range around Middle C. This is also a time of spontaneous singing and making up of original songs.
A good preschool will have a dedicated “music time” with both singing and instruments for this age group. Both language skills and future musical skills are going through crucial development in children this age.
Singing With Expanded Range (4 years to 5 years)
With many singing experiences and some guidance, children should be able to sing accurately in the Middle C scale by the age of four or five.
Keep in mind that the range of a child’s voice at this stage is narrow. They may attempt higher and lower notes, with some small chance of success, but generally, a realistic expectation is that a child this age should be able to accurately imitate the notes in the octave just above Middle C.
Not every child is destined to be a great singer, but most successfully stay on pitch if given the correct training early in life. It is very important that we give them the opportunity to learn music from the ages of 18 months to 5 years. A good quality preschool program will recognize this fact and not neglect this important developmental tool.
What Can You Do As a Parent?
Parents spend a lot of time searching for just the “right” preschool, doing their best to prepare their child to enter formal school and excel. Just as important as selecting a good school for your child is the interaction between the two of you. Never underestimate the effect you can have on your child’s development. You do not need to be a teacher or undergo any formal training in music or any of the other academic disciplines. Spending time with your child, playing, singing, and talking to them, can help them develop more quickly than any preschool program available.
As a parent, you can augment your child’s preschool music program by singing or playing music frequently around your home. Teaching music to preschoolers using songs with a clear melody and repetitive lyrics are wonderful choices. Simple songs such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider” make perfect choices for younger children and can toddlers as young as 18 months can learn them. They may not form all the words correctly, but if you listen, you will note that their voice raises and lowers in pitch at the appropriate time in the song.
Provide your child access to rhythm instruments or other instruments. Small keyboards, tambourines, even kazoos, are all excellent “toys” for you to have on hand. As children learn valuable life skills through pretend play, they will also learn musical skills through experimentation and “play” with various instruments.
Teaching music to your children or others can be very rewarding for both you and them. Incorporate music into your daily lives, and make time for more formal instruction. Your child will reap the benefits for the rest of their lives.
- Moreno, S., Marques, C., Santos, A., Santos, M., Castro, S., & Besson, M. (2009). Musical training influences linguistic abilities in 8-year-old children: More evidence for brain plasticity. Cerebral Cortex, 19(3), 712-723. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhn120.
- Marvin Greenberg, Your Children Need Music, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979
- Linda Swears, Teaching the Elementary School Chorus, West Nyack, NY: Parker, 1984
About the Author
Kim and her husband, Craig, live in Overland Park KS where she successfully manages a marketing company and homeschools her two children still at home. Twenty-two years of juggling business and homeschooling has taught her a thing or two about time management. In addition to work and family, Kim helps her husband with the College and Career class at the church and also directs the Children's Music Ministry and drama team. The Submissive Spirit was born from her desire to reach out to other Christian women across the globe and share encouragement and the love of Christ.