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The role of Music in Early Years Education

by Enrica De Cesare

Playing or listening to music involves our senses in a full experience where they merge, giving us a range of emotions and thoughts. As I lived both in Italy and United Kingdom, I saw in both countries a struggle to offer a Music education in schools that transcended reading notes and being able to play some simple tunes on a chosen instrument.

While working in childcare, I had the opportunity to see for myself how music can influence the development of children in different areas and contribute to their physical and emotional growth.

When singing a nursery rhyme, children develop their language skills: they expand their vocabulary by learning new words and understand how words can be combined together to create simple sentences.

Singing involves using the muscles in their face to articulate the words and develops their breathing pattern in order to gain a the ability to sing a few words together using only one cycle of inspiration and expiration.

In order to sing a song, children have to memorise the words: this involves developing their cognitive skills to first learn these words, then giving them a meaning so that it is not a mere exercise of repetition, but an active recalling of what they have learnt.

While singing children are encouraged to clap their hands, stomp their feet or acting out the words. By doing so, children develop their motor skills, using their coordination, strengthening their arms and hands. In addition, associating a word to an action will give it a specific meaning that will encourage the learning process.

As much as children can learn a song while listening to it and being involved in another activity (e. g. drawing, colouring, eating their meal etc.), having them sitting down in a circle singing all together develops their ability to concentrate, stay in the same position for a while and prepares them for their next steps in school.

In the Early Years, children have the chance to play percussion instruments, such as tambourine, maracas, triangle, cymbals, wooden sticks. Playing them requires the use of their motor skills as they try to hit or shake them rhythmically and developing their hand - eye coordination when the musical instrument has two components (e. g. the triangle and its wand, two wooden sticks etc.).

While playing percussion instruments, children develop their mathematical language by counting the beats and they understand that they can feel the rhythm not only with their ears, but with their whole body.

Children can play an instrument or sing while being contracted and worried about what they will have to do: when it is time to play, when they have to sing their solo and so on. If they are able to feel the rhythm with their body, playing and singing stop being an exercise and becomes an act of confidence and freedom. The will play and sing because they are aware of how the song goes and will know when their turn is.

Either playing or singing involves the children's listening skills: in order to sing and play together, children must listen to each others. This is one of the main goals when talking about the development of communication and language , but also, I would say, a skill for life.

Learning to listen to others and waiting for your turn by playing and singing when it is your time to do so gives children an ability they can use in life while confronting and dealing with other people. As there is a time, tempo, in Music, there is a time in life. Our chaotic society made us forget about it asking us to achieve everything as soon as possible; by teaching children the importance of time we give them a different perspective to approach their life.

Although nursery rhymes have simple tunes and words, it is from the easiest piece that you can create lots of learning opportunities.

If we consider the nursery rhyme 'Wind the bobbin up', there are different options to sing and act it out.

First children can be taught both the lyrics and the actions by singing and acting it out with their teachers. Once they are confident to do so, these are some ideas to sing the song:

• singing it piano and forte, asking children first to use their indoor voice then pretend they are outside in the garden and need to make themselves heard from a side to another;

• singing it in a very slow tempo and fast tempo, asking children to pretend first they are getting very tired and need to relax then they are suddenly waking up and getting ready as fast as they can;

• children can just act out the song without singing the words: this will develop their sense of rhythm, the ability to listen to each others and work as a small team.

The first two options can be combined together; be aware that children tend to associate slow tempo with their indoor voice and fast tempo with forte releasing all their energies while doing so. It can be an interesting challenge with preschool children to try and sing it in a fast tempo while using their indoor voices and loudly while slowing down the tempo.

If we look at the 'Grand Old Duke of York' again children can sing and act it out.

This nursery rhyme requires not only singing but, in addition, marching following the rhythm and an understanding of two opposite concepts : up and down.

After teaching both the words and the actions, these are some of the options to perform the song:

• children can first march and act out the song without singing it, then they can add words to their actions. This will help them cooperate, listen to each others and build up their team;

• children can be divided in two groups and sing the part ' and when you're up you're up, and when you're down you're down' alternatively developing their ability to concentrate and wait for their turn;

• children can march in the room, first the teacher can be the leader, then a child. I usually tell them that the child who listens and follows the lead can be the next leader in order to encourage them to follow the directions;

• children can be given percussion instruments such as tambourines. A child can play the tambourine acting as the leader and the others can march and sing following his lead.

Since every child is unique and every group of children has their own characteristics, it is the teacher's responsibility to see which ideas work best with every group of children. Working with children allows the adult to experiment and improvise following their lead as well in order to create music all together.

Enrica De Cesare is a qualified  educator who holds an MA in Classical Literature (Università degli Studi, G. D'Annunzio, Chieti ), a BA in Singing (Conservatorio Statale di Musica, Luisa D'Annunzio, Pescara) and a Diploma as Early years Educator. 

She has been working as management team in private nurseries and preschools since 2015. Previously she worked as a private Italian tutor to both children and adults, using her Music knowledge to work with opera singers. 

Before deciding to move to the UK, she worked in Pescara, where she is from in Italy, as a Music teacher in primary schools.


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