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A Whole New Meaning to the Word...Play
While many preschoolers learn the most through play and hands-on activities, using musical instruments will also make a difference in the way that they learn. Playing no longer has to only involve puppets, make-believe and toys. It can involve the arts, offering a tactile and multi-sensory experience for this age group. They will have the opportunity to master a variety of skills while moving and grooving to the music at the same time.
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The Instrument Connection
The benefits that music provides have been thoroughly researched and proven via the Mozart Effect. Children who are consistently exposed to musical experiences gain neural connections that help with brain development and cognitive thinking. It has been proven that this exposure helps them do better in areas such as reading and math, helps them gain better control of their bodies, aids in focusing, promotes higher self-esteem and emphasizes teamwork.
However, what in particular about musical instruments makes it an asset to learning? According to Lili M. Levinowitz, Ph.D., "The early childhood years are crucial for using the body to respond as a musical instrument in many ways to many different kinds of music. Real musical instruments, like tools, can then become simply extensions or amplifications of the body's ability to be musically expressive." In addition, the National Association of Music Education states that "a music curriculum for preschool-age children should include many opportunities to explore sound through singing, moving, listening, and playing instruments."
Exposing young children to instruments can help to achieve the following:
- Increase gross and fine motor skills and helps to develop muscle tone in the hands and arms.
- Develop a sense of beat and rhythm
- Reinforce hand-eye coordination
- Encourage imaginative play and storytelling through sound effects
- Increase listening (and hence, reading) skills
- Reinforce and emphasize self-discipline and self-control
- Enhance comprehension of music notation (in its simplest form), dynamics, and musical form
- Develop patterning skills and learn basic mathematical concepts of sequencing, numerical order, counting forwards and backwards and addition/subtraction (for advanced students).
- Develop understanding of where sound comes from and how it changes (according to instrument played)
- Develop a sense of teamwork and social skills such as sharing, taking turns, etc.
- Develop sense of cultural awareness
In addition to these benefits, neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus has conducted research that has proven that playing a musical instrument enhances the brain's sensitivity to speech sounds. She states, "Playing an instrument may help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice."
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All the Bells and Whistles
It is important to select the appropriate instruments for this age level. Preschoolers will utilize instruments that help them keep a steady beat such as rhythm instruments in addition to those that may teach the concepts of melody and pitch.
Rhythm or percussive instruments
- Animal shakers
- Box shakers
- Egg shakers
- Jingle bells
- Finger Cymbals or Hand cymbals
- Wood blocks
- Tone or twin-tone blocks
- Sand blocks
- Rhythm sticks
- Stir xylophone
- Hand drums
- Ocean drums
- Lollipop drums
- Tom toms (for the floor)
- Gathering drum
Barred Instruments (May be better suited for an advanced group)
- Step or Resonator bells
- Resonator bars (These are great because they are individual so that they only hit the notes you want)
Other Melodic Instruments
- Train whistle
- Slide whistle
- Vibraslap (makes jawbone sound)
- Frog guiro
Note: Some of these instruments are hard to acquire and are expensive. If the school's principal cannot secure funds for this purpose, check with your high school band's music director. She may have some instruments she can loan to your classroom. For parents who are ready to make an investment, many local music stores may offer an instrument rental program.
My suggestion for ordering instruments for the first time is to purchase a rhythm band kit that will have enough pieces for each student to have something. They can always switch it up and you will still be able to divide them according to instrument if doing a large group music activity. This way here, you can save money while affording all the students a chance to participate, before purchasing all the bells and whistles.
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Music on a Budget
If you can't afford instruments, then there is the option of making your own or having the student make them.
To make shakers, put seeds, macaroni, beads, beans, peas, rice or other small objects inside plastic containers with lids, plastic eggs, plastic bottles, or film canisters. Maracas are made from paper bags filled with any of these mentioned items and tied off with yarn. String instruments can be made from string, rubber bands, and shoe, Kleenex or macaroni boxes. Empty coffee cans, oatmeal containers, or baby formula cans can make basic drums. Jingle bells are easily made by sewing bells onto a strip of elastic. Tambourines can be made from recycled tin pie plates and anything small and metal around the house (i.e. paper clips, loose keys, buttons, bells, etc.).
The book, Kids Make Music! by Avery Hart is an excellent resource for making and utilizing a variety of musical instruments.
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Music Center Fun
- Take a large container (plastic tote, bin, box, etc.) and fill it with small, percussive instruments for improvisational play.
- Next to it set up a listening station for them to listen to CDs of classical and jazz music and let them play their instruments along with it.
- You should also have another small bin to leave flashcards of mixed instrument symbols to represent where and what they should play (this works best in small groups using a pocket chart).
- Also include a microphone for those who want to sing. This way the students create their own groups for a jam session.
- Another idea is to have a basket or container of movement props such as scarves, ribbons, feathers, and flags.
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Creating Beats With Books
Integrating literature with music is an innovative way to liven up the story and keep your preschoolers engaged. Storytelling with instrumental accompaniment brings a whole new level of excitement to reading and aids in listening and comprehension. Rhythm instruments can add sound effects, portray characters or emphasize an important or repetitive phrase in the book.
Here are some examples of books to use with instruments:
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin - This book offers the phrase, "Chicka chicka boom boom, will there be enough room?" Have the students play chick chicka on maracas (shakers) and boom boom on the drums, reinforcing patterning and repetition.
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin - I have used this book in my primary music classes and they have loved it! When you read the phrase, "Click, clack, MOO," half of the students play rhythm sticks on the click, click; and the rest of the class shouts MOO and play the cowbell. (This is a cute story too!)
The Gingerbread Man by Jim Aylesworth - For this one, have students chant the repetitive lines while keeping a steady beat on hand drums or bongs/tom toms. Half the class would chant and drum, "Run, Run! Fast you as can! You can't catch me! I'm the Gingerbread Man!" (with the rest of the lines to follow). The other half then will say, "No, No! I won't come back! I'd rather run than be your snack!" This group will use jingle bells with a faster beat to represent him running. This teaches sequencing and keeping a steady beat.
Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Eric Carle and Bill Martin - I have used this book with instruments by changing the words to, "Polar Bear, Polar Bear, what do you hear? I hear a jingle bell chiming in my ear." You could do drum booming, maracas shaking, triangle ringing, rhythm stick tapping, etc. This teaches instrument/sound identification and reinforces listening skills.
Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina - This is a great book to introduce glockenspiels to represent going up and down using a swooping motion.
Good Night Good Knight by Shelley Moore - This is also a great book to use glockenspiels to teach glissando (going up and down the tower) and woodblocks/tone blocks for galloping. Being more of an adventure book, it allows for sound effect creation and teaches sequencing and repetition. This is more on the advanced side for preschool, but a cute book.
Other books that are great for incorporating instruments to create sound effects are Halloween-related. The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams is one of my kids' favorites!
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Music and Math
Instruments can also be used to teach preschool math concepts such as counting and grouping. For example, songs like, "Johnny Works with One Hammer" teach preschoolers how to count while playing instruments. Use wood blocks or tone blocks to create the "hammer" sound while singing. One student starts and then each time you add a hammer, you add a student playing their wood block.
Songs like "Ten in the Bed" and "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" are good songs for teaching counting and sequence and also reverse counting. Sing them during circle time and after singing each verse, count while tapping rhythm sticks or drums.
One of my favorite counting songs is "Five Little Speckled Frogs" which teaches counting backwards in sequence. Instruments can be used as sound effects such as a cymbal when they splash into the pool, jingle bells on the word "cool", and a frog guiro for the "Ribbit Ribbit".
Another idea is to take the tune of "Ten Little Indians" and change it to the names of the instruments. (i.e. One little, two little, three little tambourines. etc.)
"This Old Man" is also a favorite for counting. In the past, I have used an old man puppet with numbered pockets for volunteers to put the objects in, and the rest of the students play either wood blocks or tambourines to the steady beat.
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The Science of Sound
Exploring and experimenting with sound is something that all preschoolers enjoy and a great way to introduce some special instruments as well.
Set up eight water glasses on a table that each have a varying amount of water in them, starting off with very little and increasing with each glass. The first glass you could leave clear and then color the rest with food coloring according to the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and clear again for glass eight. Then, put paper with numbers written on them in order 1-8 under the glasses, so students can identify which glass makes what sound.
Use metal spoons or a triangle beater to play the glasses. Ask the students the following questions:
- Do all the glasses sound the same or different?
- Why do they sound different?
- Which one makes the lowest sound?
- Which one makes the highest sound?
Next, pick a few volunteers to play the glasses as a song such as "Hot Cross Buns" using this pattern:
Creating Sound Effects
Use instruments such as rainsticks to create sound effects in songs or books as well. For example, in the "Itsy Bitsy Spider", have the students take turns using them to create the rain during "Down came the rain".
You could also use the book Rain Song by Lezlie Evans to create a storm with instruments such as the drums for thunder or pounding on the carpet, wood blocks for the drips and drops, the rain sticks for the pouring rain and cymbals for crashes of lightening.
The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle is also a popular choice for kids at this level as it teaches them the importance of quiet, sounds in nature and how insects communicate, and the concept of silence. Have them play cricket guiros or just regular guiros at the end when he meets the other cricket.
What Is That Sound?
During circle time or as an extension activity, play this game. Have a bunch of instruments on a table hidden behind a standing piece of cardboard or even behind a chart. Then ask one volunteer to go and play one instrument. The first person to raise their hand and guess it correctly gets to take a turn next until all students have a turn.
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Large Group Activities or Extensions
Old MacDonald Had a Band - This version is sung to the tune of the original, except instead of animals, he has instruments. Divide your class into groups with each one playing a different instrument (.i.e. tambourines, sticks, drums, triangles, etc.)
If You're Happy and You Know It - Replace body movements with instruments. (i. e. play your drum, tap your sticks, shake your maraca, etc.)
Shake Your Sillies Out - have your students shake (with maracas) their sillies out, jiggle (with jingle bells), wiggle (with tambourines), clap or tap (with sticks) and so on.
You could even have a classroom parade and march while playing all of the percussive instruments!
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Essential Management Tips and Suggestions
It is critical that you teach students to handle the instruments properly and safely not only for their protection but for the longevity of the instruments.
- When instruments are not in use, they should be in "rest position". I would suggest having this be on the floor in front of them so they cannot fiddle with them.
- Mallets should always be in rest position when not in use. They should be parallel to them on the floor.
- I would suggest having a ready-to-play position to get them set up. For sticks, it would be one in each hand resting on their shoulders; for mallets, the same thing; for all other instruments, the instruments would be in their hands but resting on their laps.
- Always count off before starting so they can start together (this is an obvious one)
- Practice rest and play positioning so that they become familiar with the rules when using the instruments.
- Make sure they know where to put them away so they are safe and organized.
- Never use wood or metal mallets on xylophones, marimbas, or resonator bars made of wood. Always use the soft mallets.
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Preschoolers love bouncing to beats, shaking their sillies out, and tapping out a tune, no matter the time of day. Mix these actions with the preschool curriculum and your students will be so engaged in their own learning that they may just keep on moving, even if the instruments are put away!
1. Colia, Ginger Covert. "Music Birth to Kindergarten: Theory and Practice" taken from the text Music in Childhood by Campbell and Scott-Kessner
This is a great resource for all teachers that provides activities, instrument, descriptions, and objectives for music and instruments.
2. Connors, Abigail. 101 Rhythm Instrument Activities for Young Children. Gryphon House. 2004.
3. Goodkin, Doug. A Rhyme in Time: Rhythm, Speech Activities and Improvisation for the Classroom. Warner Bros. Publishing. 1997.
- Why playing a musical instrument can help children learn with language skills, from The Daily Mail.
- Author's own classroom teaching experience
- Image: Rhythm Band, Amazon.com
Image: Colorful Maracas, Taman Renyah/Wikimedia Commons
- Ciares, Jovanka and Borgese, Paul. The Benefits of Music on Child Dvelopment, from PaulBorgese.com
- Introducing Preschoolers to Music, from kidshealth.org
- Levinowitz, Lili. The Importance of Music in Early Childhood, from musictogether.com
- Braynard, Karen. Sing Along! You Have the Cildren's Permission, from EarlyChildhoodNews.com
- Stafford, Karen. The Benefits of Early Childhood Education