What younger children have taught me about singing in the early years part 2

01 February 2022

Pitching it right: supporting early communication through singing

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

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

Read time: Approx 7min | Videos and recordings: Approx 8.5min

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

This is number two of a three part blog series. Check out the first one here, if you haven’t already. 

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. Appropriate consents were obtained for all videos. 

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?

2. Pitching it right: supporting early communication through singing

Slow down and repeat and repeat and repeat Through observation and many years singing with younger children, I have found it effective to slow down and use lots of repetition.

Here in the North East we speak fast! This pace often gets taken into our songs too. 

I have sometimes observed practitioners rushing through ‘song-time’ using lots of different songs and props.  If I do this, the child in front of me does not get the time they need to interpret and make sense of all of the information in this song.  Younger children need time to:

  • listen to the song
  • decide if they like it
  • decipher words and sounds
  • decide whether they would like to join in
  • work out how they would like to join in
  • have a go at joining in, in their own unique way

I have observed children who are ready to have a go at engaging with a song using their bodies and/or voices, only to find that their practitioner has moved straight onto the next song.  This is especially true for much younger children, and those who come to speech and language a little later. This can become a demotivating and frustrating experience, which can lead to children disengaging entirely. 

I try to repeat songs many times, taking my cues from the child or children I am with. I find it effective to take one familiar tune, and use this one song for as long as we can explore, adapt and have fun with it. I could use one song for a focussed activity using: puppets; lycra; scrunchy; movement play; instruments; or in response to child-initiated play. This might mean we sing the song twenty times or more, provided the children are engaged. Children are not bored by this level of repetition, unless I am.  If I lose interest, or get sick of the song, I need to change it. 

I will be exploring song choices more fully in the next blog, so keep an eye out for it, as there will be lots of singing content for you in this one too. 

Brahm’s lullaby video 

Prompts: Notice the differences between the first and second times I sing this song with this child. Play it twice if you don’t pick up the differences the first time.

Context: This video was taken after I had been singing this song on repeat with a little musical toy which was in the crèche. This little girl is under 2. She cued me to do this again and again, and only joined in herself after about ten times. She initially joined in with the Makaton signs I was doing, then added sounds, mouth shapes and vocalisations at the ends of phrases. You can see she starts to feel sleepy too, maybe this is because it is a lullaby. When she communicated that she was finished, I stopped. 

Consider the use of the ‘toy’ here. As a musical educator, I have been guilty of snobbery and judgement of musical and noise-making ‘toys’. This experience taught me that they can be of great value, and that I should not be so judgemental about their use. 

Did you notice that other adults in this room value this interaction? Could you hear the early years practitioner asking children to be quieter so we could listen to this girl singing?

Maintain eye contact I make and maintain eye contact with individual children as much as I can. Eye contact is one of the most basic aspects of human communication. Eye contact communicates attention, focus, interest, and the beginning of an exchange between two people. Some of our youngest children have missed out on essential early experiences of 1:1 eye contact and communication, especially as we emerge from the Covid-19 mask-wearing pandemic. 

Eye contact does not always need to be face-to-face. I often sit next to individual children as it feels more supportive and friendly.

Enunciation (SALT) Lesley Forrester (SALT, North Tyneside) has supported all of my Youth Music-funded projects, ensuring that we work in ways which effectively support early communication.

Lesley taught me to sing words clearly so children can see the shape of my mouth without sounds getting altered. She explained that this will happen naturally if I slow down and increase the pause lengths between phrases and lines. She told us not to worry about masking our accents or singing like an opera singer. She said we must remember that singing together is a communication and the children will want to be reassured that it’s you they are sharing with.

The power of 1:1 work and working alongside early years practitioners

This next video clip was taken as part of a Youth Music funded project called The Terrific Twos at Riverside. Supporting the children’s early communication was at the heart of all musical activity. I am working in a separate space with an early years practitioner who is filming what we are doing. We prioritised 1:1 work throughout, as the benefits for the children were huge. I missed quite a few of the child’s cues here, so I learned a lot when we used this particular video in our reflective practice meeting. 

Prompt: Consider the pacing of the adult responses here. I tried to leave plenty of time for this boy to explore, talk, direct and tell us what he is interested in. Despite this intentional pacing, I still miss a few clear cues and phrases which he repeats. See if you can spot them.

Video: Songbag  

Context: The boy in this video is two. 

The early years practitioner who is filming  is the key worker for this boy. This practitioner was well known for excellent karaoke, and we all loved to hear her sing. She and I are working as a pair.  She knows this child far better than I do, so understands more of his communication. At one point, she picks up on his cue for a song which I miss completely. She begins to sing when she sees that I have not responded to him instigating singing about the ladybird.  When I watch this back, I do not know how I missed this, it looks so obvious after the fact! This was a very effective working relationship. 

Hedgehog song 

Did you notice 

  • the pace of language and song? That the song stops whenever this boy spoke? Language development was central so this was very deliberate. 
  • that I do not actually sing much or do very much in the way of music-making? There is a tension here as a ‘music practitioner’ to be ‘doing music’ whenever possible. I am working hard to focus on the importance of listening, mirroring and giving children time to respond.
  • the use of finger puppets?
  • how the child leads (or tries to lead) the interaction?
  • anything else?

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

  • Taking a video observation of yourself or colleague leading song-time (with appropriate consents and ethics consideration). Reflect back on this as a team and start a dialogue about singing. How do the children respond? What do you notice? 
  • How fast you are singing and how this impacts the child/ren’s ability to fully join in with you
  • The ways in which you are supporting early communication when singing with younger children. Get specific here
  • What opportunities there are for your children/child to lead singing and influence the ways singing is used when with you
  • Whether you can create more 1:1 opportunities for singing and how this would work practically (may need dedicated space/resources/time)
  • The working relationship of early years practitioners and music practitioners and what this could or does look like on the ground in your setting
  • Sharing this blog series with your colleagues and starting a conversation about how you use singing in your setting