Dear Dr. Debbie,
My two-year-old just started with a family childcare provider since I started back to work. She came highly recommended by several neighbors whose children went there until they were old enough for kindergarten.
My son seems happy enough. Something I’m wondering about, though. The lady sings a lot.
She greets each child – there are three others – with a song using their names. When I observed a couple weeks ago, she sang to the children to get them to clean up, then sang another song to get them to wash their hands. When parents come to pick up, you guessed it, there’s a good-bye song. I don’t remember much from kindergarten, my first school experience, but certainly didn’t have anything like this going on. If my childcare provider is helping to prepare my son for school, won’t he be confused when he gets there and his teacher just talks?
Can’t Carry a Tune in a Bucket
The benefits of using music with young children are well-known in the field of Early Childhood Education. Traditionally, the nursery is where nursery rhymes and finger plays are learned (think “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with the hand motions). For countless generations, babies have been sung to for calming, for going to sleep and for learning things like where your “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are, and the alphabet. Research for at least the past three decades credits regular experiences with music with higher grades, higher IQ scores, and higher college entrance scores. Whether great music experiences continue with your son’s next educational setting, his quickly developing brain is truly benefiting now from a singing caregiver.
Advertisers, preschool teachers, opera singers, guitar superstars, and coaches with whistles, all use music to get attention. Your son’s care provider uses different songs to greet, shift activities, and direct hygiene habits. Through consistency, your son will quickly learn which song is which. This is much nicer than if she were to gruffly give orders all day.
There seems to be something in us which compels humans to attend to musical sounds, as if sensing there is meaning awaiting our recognition. Indeed observations of newborns reveal different breathing patterns between listening to Mozart or Stravinsky. Musicologists would say, “Of course.” Mozart’s music is used to lull babies to sleep. Stravinsky’s much more dramatic music was actually called, “the work of a mad man.” Music speaks to us.
Brain development requires stimulation. Language development specifically requires audible stimulation. Young humans are extremely sensitive to sound patterns, starting from before birth as they listened through amniotic fluid to patterns of digestive noises and the buffered sounds of familiar voices. Anything that is heard regularly – machine noises, a dog’s bark, and other everyday cacophony, will also come to be recognized as part of the known world. Early in life, recurring and novel sounds, including music, lay a foundation for the neural pathways necessary for listening and speaking.
A caregiver who uses songs to guide children through the daily schedule is enriching their brains for language.
Physical development involves gaining strength and coordination of hand muscles (known as “fine motor skills”) as well as strength and coordination of arms, legs, torso, and neck (known as “large motor” or “gross motor skills”). When children are encouraged to bounce, bang, clap, and even wash their hands to the beat of a song, they gain physical competence. I imagine this caregiver also provides ample space and time for dancing. Songs may suggest actions to carry out (“Lift your knees up, step in time!”) or animal movements to perform. Or maybe she uses instrumental music that taps into the children’s imaginations for how they want to move.
Incidentally, tempo and rhythm are mathematical constructs, so early music experiences are also building the math networks of the brain.
Music supports a caregiving relationship. A routine greeting song, much like a routine lullaby at naptime, will add to your son’s sense of security while you’re away at work. A caregiver’s songs let the children know she is present, attentive to them, and available take care of their needs as they explore, make mistakes, make discoveries, and drift off to sleep.
Music experiences can be shared with others. Everyone jumps to “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” Everyone claps to “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Everyone cleans up together during the clean-up song. Recorded music invites everyone to share the space in the room for dancing.
One’s culture can be expressed through singing and dancing. Your son may be hearing traditional nursery tunes, which mostly originated in Europe, but also popular American music which reflects the multi-cultural strands and blends of our country. With the world’s music as accessible as the phone in her pocket, your son’s caregiver has at her fingertips a variety of cultures and musical genres. A wide selection demonstrates an embrace of our human diversity.
One of the best benefits of using music with young children is that it can help them learn to express and manage their feelings. Singing along with a teacher can be joyful, silly, or exciting (wait for it . . . “Pop! Goes the weasel!”). Making up your own songs, and dances, can be a release for whatever the child is feeling inside himself.
Half of my three-year-old students experienced the break-up of their parents during the course of one school year. Without labeling it as such, our “creative movement” to a variety of pieces (jazz, Tchaikovsky ballets, Sousa marches, Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme, etc.) was a way for them to express their confusion, worry, anger, or sadness. After about twenty minutes of very expressive dancing, a calmness would spread over the class.
Let’s hope your son continues to find music when he goes to kindergarten and beyond. A two-year study starting with first graders found continued benefits in brain development for those who spent seven hours a week practicing an instrument as compared to those who spent their time with soccer or those who had no extracurricular activity. Music is kind of like vegetables. We should make sure to have some every day.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.