By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
Singing is a wonderful tool for learning, reinforcing concepts, and creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere in your home, library, or classroom. Music also plays a key role in developing pre-reading skills in young children.
There are lots of simple ways to incorporate singing into your daily routine, even if you don’t think of yourself as musical. This post includes practical tips for singing with the little ones in your life and some good reasons to give it a try. Any day is a good day to get caught singing!
What’s So Special About Singing?
Do you know your ABCs? How about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? If you answered yes to one or both, you are living proof of the deep connection between music and memory.
Hearing a familiar song often brings back memories of what was happening in your life when you first learned the tune. The flip side is that rhythm and melody can help new ideas “stick” in your memory. Commercial jingles are a good example of this effect, and the alphabet song is another.
When you first learned the alphabet song, you had no concept of alphabetical order. Learning the letters along with the tune helped you get familiar with the idea, but it also helped you learn the specifics. Even now, thinking of the tune is probably the easiest way to remember the order of the letters.
Try answering the following questions as fast as you can:
- Which comes first, Y or W?
- How many letters fall between N and R?
If you found yourself singing or thinking the alphabet song to come up with the answers, you are in good company.
Music is especially valuable for young children. Research shows that along with teaching new concepts and vocabulary, singing helps preschool children hear and differentiate between the smaller sounds in words, which is an important pre-reading skill (Degé & Schwarzer, 2011). Rhymes also build this skill. Many children’s songs rhyme, which boosts their effectiveness as learning tools.
Clearly there are good reasons to sing with young children.
Having said all that, what if you just don’t feel comfortable singing? Maybe you didn’t grow up in a musical environment or are self-conscious about your voice. You are not alone; many adults feel the same way.
If you don’t think you like singing, the bad news is that playing recorded music (which can be wonderful in its own way) is not a great substitute. Playing a CD or an MP3 doesn’t give you the flexibility to adapt a song for your child or group, and it does not provide the same kind of bonding experience you create by singing together. Finally, research shows that young children learn best through in-person interaction rather than media (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016).
The good news is that the young children in your life enjoy hearing your voice just because it is yours, and they can get all the benefits of singing together even if you can’t carry a tune. All it takes is a few simple building blocks and a willingness to be (and sound) a little bit silly.
If the thought of singing with a child or group makes you nervous, try these simple exercises to build your confidence and get used to the sound of your own voice:
- Sing along with the radio when you are alone in the car, or sing to yourself in the shower. Don’t worry about mastering any particular song, just get used to singing out loud.
- If you have trouble remembering the words or just want to focus on sounds, try singing nonsense words or syllables to a familiar tune. For instance, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is hilarious if you replace all the words with noodle. Give it a try!
Next, choose a few familiar songs and get comfortable singing them. There are thousands of wonderful songs written for children. Thinking about all those choices can be overwhelming, so focus on a few titles (three to five) that can be used in a variety of settings. Some favorites include:
- the alphabet song
- “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”
- “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”
- “Old MacDonald”
- “If You’re Happy and You Know It”
- “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed”
- “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”
When you jump in and start singing with kids, their enthusiasm will carry you along. If things don’t go according to plan, play up the silliness and keep rolling.
Now for the Fun Part!
Singing can add interaction and movement to your day, your storytime, or your classroom.
One way to make the most of a small repertoire of songs is to make a song cube. Simply take a squarish box (or make one from tag board) and put a picture representing a song on each side. Use the cube like a die, and roll it to determine which song to sing. If you have a small enough group, children can take turns rolling the cube.
When you are ready to mix things up a bit, try singing familiar songs in new ways. Singing faster or slower, changing the words to include children’s names, or leaving out selected words can get kids excited about music and help them hear the songs (and their component parts) in fresh ways.
Using specific songs at set times helps establish positive routines and eases transitions. Having a hello song, a cleanup song, and a get-your-wiggles-out song creates friendly and positive ways to move through the day. This also gives young children a chance to demonstrate what they know.
One of my favorite memories of using music with kids is from a library storytime a couple years ago. The topic was feelings, and we were about to sing, “You Are My Sunshine.” As I introduced the song, a little girl who was usually very quiet piped up, “My daddy sings that song to help me go to sleep.” Her dad wasn’t the person who brought her to the library that day, but you could tell by her smile that thinking of the song made her feel like he was right there with her. She gave herself a little hug as she talked, and I admit that I teared up a little and had to pause before we started to sing.
Singing has clear developmental benefits, and it can be a useful teaching tool. But the very best thing about singing with children is helping them create those kinds of special moments and memories. Years from now, when that little girl from storytime is grown up, I bet hearing “You Are My Sunshine” will still bring that same smile to her face.
You can create musical memories for the special kids in your life starting today. Get caught singing!
To read more about the power of singing with kids, you may want to read this School Library Journal article by Sarah Bayliss: “Why Your Library Needs Music.” The article includes links and lists to tons of additional resources.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. “Media and Young Minds.” Pediatrics 138, no. 5 (October 2016).
Degé, F., & Schwarzer, G. “The Effect of a Music Program on Phonological Awareness in Preschoolers.” Frontiers in Psychology 2, no. 124 (June 20, 2011).
Greensfelder, L. “Study Finds Brain Hub That Links Music, Memory and Emotion.” UC Davis (February 23, 2009).
Jenkins, Tiffany. “Why Does Music Evoke Memories?” BBC (October 21, 2014).