The Value of Teaching Music in Pre-K |®

The Value of Teaching Music in Pre-K

Don’t think you have enough time in your instructional day to teach music to your young students? Think again.

“Music is one of the few activities that uses both sides of the brain,” explains Dianna Babcock, director of early childhood music for the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, MN. “We know that music can enhance social emotional skills, cognitive skills, language skills, executive functioning skills, and pre-literacy and pre-math skills.”

Researchers from the MacPhail Center and Wilder Child Development Center of St. Paul have studied how music impacts low-income students’ pre-literacy and social emotional skill development since 2004. The Center trained educators to integrate music throughout the day and tracked student performance. The first year of the research project showed a 25 to 40 percent increase in pre-literacy skills and a 15 to 20 percent increase in pre-math skills.

Despite these gains, many pre-K teachers don’t use much music throughout the day. “A lot of teachers are afraid of music because teacher training doesn’t include it, because we judge our voices as not ‘sing-worthy’ or because we don’t play,” says Lisha Lercari, founder of Music and the Brain.

The good news is, you don’t have to be an American Idol finalist for your students to reap music’s benefits. In fact, not being musical can actually help.

“It’s more about expression, fun and the experience than about perfect pitch,” says Steve Roslonek, affectionately known as “Mr. Steve” on PBS KIDS Preschool Destination. “For teachers who have never formally learned how to play an instrument, you can purchase something like a ukulele, small piano keyboard or even an autoharp. Learning to play a couple of songs on a ukulele is surprisingly doable, and very easy on an autoharp that’s in tune. Some of the most common chords can be played by using one or two fingers and remembering where to place them, with many free learning resources available online. Sharing the process of learning a new instrument with your students and ultimately being able to accompany their singing on beautiful yet simple songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ or even collaborating with them to write some simple rhyming songs, can enhance the classroom experience in so many ways.”

5 Ways Music Can Benefit Students

How can you integrate more music into your pre-K classroom? Try these ideas:

1. Enhance Focus: “Many teachers play instrumental music in the background when kids are drawing or writing,” Lercari explains. “It fills in the space and stops them from getting distracted.” You also can increase focus with songs that require lots of participation, like “B-I-N-G-O” or rounds.

2. Improve Memorization: “Most children ages 3 to 5 will struggle trying to recall a list of rules, but if you put it in a song, they are much more likely to remember,” notes Emily Weiland Spaeth, general music teacher at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, NJ. “How many of us still remember the three times tables from the Schoolhouse Rock song, ‘Three Is the Magic Number’? Information linked through music is much more likely to stick in a young person's brain. Personally, I have found that almost anything can be put to the tune of ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ and kids will sing along.”

3. Calm Kids Down: Slower instrumental music, especially classical, is an effective way to calm kids down for naptime or after recess. “If you play soothing music after children have just been really rambunctious, they start to wind down and all of that high energy soon dissipates,” says Lee Uehara, composer of Tunes for Transitions and Simple Songs to Soothe Toddlers.

4. Teach Evaluative Skills: “Add instruments to the classroom learning areas to encourage the comparing and contrasting of sounds and shapes for cognitive skill development,” Babcock says. “Provide opportunities to create sounds with found objects to build critical thinking skills.”

5. Manage Tasks and Transitions: “Practically speaking, music is a great management tool,” says Drew Holloway, pre-K, kindergarten and music teacher at University Child Development School in Seattle, WA, and member of the band Recess Monkey. “I sing at transitions rather than try to speak over the din. I've also employed the old 'can we clean up before this song is over' trick before hitting play on a rockin' number.”

“We know that music is a useful and engaging tool to get students’ attention, to help them learn and to build necessary developmental skills that are lifelong takeaways,” Babcock says. “We need to continue to provide guidance with teachers, show them how easy and successful adding music to their day can be. Once teachers feel supported to add music, and feel comfortable, most find that it does work and it actually makes their jobs easier, as well.”

Margot Carmichael Lester is owner of The Word Factory in Carrboro, NC. The granddaughter of schoolteachers, she’s a frequent guest instructor, leading K–12 workshops on persuasive, opinion and argumentative writing. She’s a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find her on Google+.

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