Here's a pop quiz. What do the following have in common?
They Might Be Giants
If you guessed a special place in the hearts and CD players of millions of preschoolers, you're right. And we're guessing that you probably have someone under age 5 listening to music in your home.
Like most preschoolers, your child probably already loves music and has favorite songs. This may have happened with little encouragement from you beyond simply playing music on long car trips.
But did you know that your preschooler is now at an ideal age to expand his or her musical horizons and abilities?
Listen to the Music
Kids who grow up hearing music, singing songs, and moving to the beat are enjoying what experts call "a rich sensory environment." That's just a fancy way of saying they're exposed to a wide variety of tastes, smells, textures, colors, and sounds. And researchers believe this forges more pathways between the cells in their brains.
Musical experiences are an important way to help create these pathways, also called neural connections. And while listening to music is certainly key to creating them, it's when kids actively participate in music that they make the strongest connections.
Research shows that kids who are actively involved in music (who play it or sing it regularly):
do better in reading and math when they start school
are better able to focus and control their bodies
play better with others and have higher self-esteem
All Together Now
Preschoolers develop a catalog of songs, from "Happy Birthday" to "Old MacDonald." They begin by singing portions of favorite songs, sometimes substituting different words or rhythms. Eventually, they can sing entire songs, although the pitch may be off.
You've probably noticed that your preschooler can keep a steady beat. You can help your child practice this skill by encouraging listening for beats — and determining if they're steady or not — in everyday objects. For example, point out the noise a kitchen clock makes and ask your child if it is a steady beat; then ask if a sound like a car horn or a dog barking has a steady beat. Practice clapping or tapping the beats to favorite songs and encourage your child to copy you.
The simplest thing you can do is put on music and dance with your child. Vary the rhythms and tempo of your body with the music. Practice "copy dancing" where you invite your child to imitate your movements and then let him or her lead as you follow.
You also can make the musical experience more visual through movement and a few props. Scarves can show ascending and descending pitches — raise the scarves up over your heads as you sing up the scale and then drop them down the floor as you go down. Or have your child walk on tiptoes when you listen to high, quiet music, and stomp his or her feet to louder, slower music.
Combining music and movement helps preschoolers learn to control their bodies. They learn to move fast to fast music, and more slowly to slow tunes. They also can learn the hand movements and simple dance moves that go along with rhymes and songs. Learning physical control is an important developmental step and can help build concentration skills and self-control later on.
Bang a Gong
Although some music-instruction programs are geared to preschoolers, most kids at this age will enjoy a more casual introduction to musical instruments. Provide a rhythm stick or a set of bells to hold in each hand and encourage your child to keep the beat while you listen to a song.
You can even make musical instruments together. Put seeds, beads, rice, beans, or other small objects inside plastic containers or bowls with lids, plastic eggs, empty plastic bottles, or film canisters. String, rubber bands, and shoe boxes make great guitars and old coffee cans or oatmeal containers are ideal drums. Then put on your child's favorite CD and play along.
For Those About to Rock
If your household has musical instruments, your child may start to use them to create a mood — banging loudly on them when happy or playing them quietly before naptime. You can encourage this by playing appropriate music for your child to accompany.
Practice "patterns" — using a rhythm instrument or your hands, play or clap short rhythmic patterns. Invite your child to echo what you just played. As your child gets older and more used to the game, make the patterns longer and more complicated. Allow him or her to lead. You can also use words as patterns; for example, a nursery rhyme like:
Round and round the haystack, goes the little mouse
One step, two step, in his little house!
Read part of the rhyme ("Round and round the haystack"), then ask your child to clap the syllables or play them on a rhythm instrument (demonstrate this the first few times). Then say the next part of the rhyme and ask your child to play it.
Also help your preschooler explore a very basic instrument: his or her voice. Demonstrate the steps below and invite your child to do the same.
"This is my speaking voice" (spoken normally). "This is my quiet voice" (spoken in a whisper). "This is my calling voice" (spoken loudly). "This is my singing voice" (sung).
Here are some ways to give kids opportunities to be musical:
Sing or listen to music in the car, while you're doing chores, and while your child is playing. Keep a basket of musical instruments where kids can get them. Consider buying a kid-friendly CD player your child can operate and keep in his or her room.
Make sure your child's preschool offers chances to sing and play simple instruments, to move to music, and to create music. Ask the teacher what songs they regularly sing so that you can sing them at home.
Enroll your child in a preschool music class. If you don't know where to begin, ask the music department at your local college for suggestions.
For a special treat, take your child to live musical performances, especially ones designed for preschoolers. Museums, libraries, and bookstores often host performances by children's-music artists. Outdoor concerts are also a good bet for preschoolers because they can dance and move around without disturbing anyone.
And after you've seen a concert together, encourage your child to give a performance for your family at home. He or she can even cut out construction paper tickets and get dressed for the occasion. At showtime, take your seat and get ready for a great show!