What younger children have taught me about singing in the early years

17 January 2022

Part One: Start with you and the child

Part one of a three part series written by Kate Maines-Beasley

This blog is for early years practitioners, teachers, music practitioners, parents, family members and anyone with an interest in early childhood studies.

Read time: Approx 7min | Time needed to watch videos: Approx 2.5min

About my work: I have been working as an early years music specialist since 2002. I use music and movement play. Children are at the centre and forefront of my approach. It is the children I have worked with who have taught me how to best approach singing in the early years. I facilitate longer term Youth Music-funded projects with under 2s and their families. 

I am passionate about younger children’s rights when it comes to music and movement.

I believe that:

  • All children are entitled to make music, sing and dance. This is their right
  • Children are musically competent. I respect and value their musical expression
  • Parents/carers must be involved in creative projects, and respected as the child’s primary educator

About this blog series

Written with early years practitioners in mind, this resource is equally relevant for parents and family members of younger children, peripatetic teachers, music leaders and practitioners, and anyone with an interest in early childhood studies.

I specialise in working with children under the age of two and their practitioners and families. However, this resource can be applied to all children under the age of five, especially as we re-emerge out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Video observations featuring younger children are an integral part of this resource. This is so that you can see and hear the approaches I have used in action. The video clips also encourage us to all reflect on the children’s individual responses and engagement. 

There are videos of all songs featured. Please adapt and use them. 

I am sharing approaches to singing in the early years which have been effective with the children I have worked with. It is my hope that this resource inspires you in your musical work and play with our youngest children. There isn’t one set approach to anything in the early years, and singing is no exception. This is because there are no two children the same, no two parents the same, and no two practitioners the same either. 

I believe that the best approach to music in the early years is to respond sensitively to the child/ren in front of you.

So, use this resource as a prompt to think about possibilities when using singing in the early years. Adapt ideas; tweak approaches; take what works and leave what doesn’t. I like being part of a wider conversation and learning from others, so please comment, ask questions, challenge ideas. That’s how we all learn isn’t it?

You and your voice 

Your voice is your very own musical instrument which you have with you at all times. Everyone who works in the early years could sing with children as part of their daily practice. If singing isn’t a part of your daily practice, it is worth considering why this is, and having a think about your own relationship to your singing voice. 

Ask yourself if you enjoy singing? Be honest. If you don’t, that’s ok. Could you dig a little deeper, and find out why?  I have lost count of the number of adults I have met who think they can’t or even worse shouldn’t sing because they were told to mime in the choir because they couldn’t sing. 

The child in front of you wants to hear you sing with and to them. They do not care what your voice is like. Honestly. Please give away any worries about your singing voice. It is uniquely yours, unlike anyone else's. As my mentor Steph Brandon taught me way back in 2002, we can all sing, it’s just that we might all sing slightly different notes. And that’s fine.

Smile and enjoy

It is easy to forget to smile when you sing, especially if you are concentrating hard. The act of smiling when you sing produces a better sound. 

Show enthusiasm and enjoyment of singing and the children will join in and do the same. If you look bored and distracted, the children will lose interest very quickly.

Start with the child 

The best way to do this is through observation.  Early years practitioners are doing this with every child they work with. It is at the heart of effective work and play in the early years. To understand more about observation, assessment and planning in the EYFS, check out the fabulous resources on the Birth to 5 Matters Website

I often film video observations of children singing. Then the project team I am part of watches these clips in dedicated reflective practice meetings. This enables us to really consider how children choose to sing when it isn’t adult-led.  

Observe and listen out for:

  • children singing to themselves. What are they doing when they are singing? Is it alongside play? Is it performative?  Is it a solo or group activity? Do they have anything in their hands?
  • how children move their bodies when they are singing on their own or with others
  • musicality in children’s voices as they play (e.g. a child playing with a figure on a slide, may go ‘wheeeeee’ from a higher pitch to a lower pitch as they move their figure down the slide. I would suggest that in itself this is musical and an excellent physical representation of pitch.)
  • children humming or making percussive sounds with their mouths
  • parents humming or singing to or with children at drop off or pick up

As part of this observation work, notice:

  • the tempo (how fast or slow) the singing is
  • the pitch (how high or low) the singing is
  • the actual sounds being made (are they recognisable words? sounds? babble patterns in babies? none are better here, all valued)
  • the child’s body language and movement

Use these observations to inform how to best use singing with your children. Start with their voices and choices. Consider whether you could do anything differently in response to what you have seen and heard. How could you start with the child when you plan singing activities? 

No pressure to join in 

Experienced early years practitioners know that children play and learn in many different ways. 

It is the same for engagement. 

It is ok if a child chooses to watch and listen to you singing from the other side of the room. A child sitting silently may be intently listening, watching, learning. This learning is just as valuable (and possibly, I would argue, even more valuable) as that of the child who jumps around in front of you singing every single word with a huge ‘ta-da’ at the end. 

Never pressure a child to sing. They will join in when they are ready and would like to. 

In my experience, the two or three year old child who sits silently while I am singing is often the one to go and re-create a music session for their favourite teddies at home. 

A child may join in with an action or gesture first.

Miss polly video 

Prompts: Watch carefully. How does this child show that he is engaged? How does he show his comprehension? How does he ‘join in’?

Context: This little boy is one. This video was taken as part of the Tuneful Tots & Bouncin Bairns Youth Music project, which was a longer term project based in two Children’s Centres. 

Things to look for

Did you notice how this little boy anticipated the writing on the paper and joined in before the practitioners had even sung this bit? If you didn’t notice this, watch it again. Look at how attentively he is ‘listening’ with his whole body.  An expert early years practitioner is filming this to share this with her colleagues. She has noticed how well he is joining in, at his own pace, and how he is showing us his understanding of the words and patterns in the song. 

Support with gesture and body language 

Body language makes up a large part of our day-to-day communication. It is important that children are enabled to use and understand this silent language in order that they grow up to be effective communicators themselves. Use of gesture whilst singing to emphasise key words can really help comprehension. Makaton is an excellent communication tool which can support early communication. Using gestures and body language supports pre and non-verbal children to join in with your song just by moving a part of their body. I try to value these contributions as highly as a verbal contribution. 

Child is the leader 

Ask a child to start off singing a song with you and/or a group.

Wheels on the bus video 

Age: This child in this video is one.

Things to look for:

  • Did you notice how he uses his body to propel himself through the song?
  • Did you notice the tempo of the singing, and the position I put myself in? I chose to be behind him, accompanying his singing. He is the leader here. Watch again if you missed any of this. It is very short.

Leave spaces 

Leave pauses and don’t be afraid of silence. Observe, listen, and encourage children to join in at their own pace.

Peekaboo video

Prompts: Watch out for the cues this child gives, how she joins in, and how she influences the interaction.

Below is the sing-along sound only version of the song 'Can you play at peekaboo' by David Evans. Feel free to play and sing along at home. 

Context: This little girl was two. She wanted to sing this song over and over again until she really knew it and could sing it all the way through. She said ‘again, again’ after each time, and with each repetition she gained confidence in her ability. She firstly began joining in with the word ‘boo’ at the end of the entire song, then added more words each time. She built up over time, starting by joining in with the last word in a line or phrase, then adding more words each time, until she was confidently singing whole parts of the song. I really slowed the pace of the song. It is often much faster when adult-led.

This was a reminder for me that there is huge power in massively slowing down the pace of my singing, repeating the song as many times as an individual child would like to, and really observing and listening to them as they fully learn it. 

Take time to reflect on what you have read. Consider:

  • Your own singing voice and how you feel about singing
  • the role of observation: how could you start to observe children’s singing and what will you do next after you have done this?
  • How are you already using singing in your setting or home?
  • Are there opportunities for your children/child to lead singing and influence the ways singing is used?
  • Do you value different ways of joining in with singing? for example through gesture, Makaton signing, or intently listening?

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If you would like to contact Kate directly please email the CBNE team - bridge@twmuseums.org.uk and they will be happy to pass on Kate's details.