How do infants express themselves before they have words? Usually, we think of crying as a primary form of communication. The tired cry, the hungry cry, the fussy cry or dirty diaper cry. Caregivers are expert interpreters. But there is another way to understand a child’s emotional life before language – and that’s to make music together.
The way the baby looks as you’re singing, the way he moves, kicks, smiles – all of it indicates presence, opinion, and the processing of musical information. When you sing a simple song, and you pay attention to your baby’s response, you carve paths in the brain that help your baby learn and you get to know your baby better.
When you think about making music with an infant or toddler, you might envision a high spirited, performative experience, an entertainment with adult leading child – something you can’t do because you can’t sing well. Your baby doesn’t care if you sing in tune, and won’t judge you. I’d like you to consider a more responsive and interactive approach. Use whatever simple songs you know.
Through music, a parent and child interact, and the adult learns about the child by watching and adjusting behavior to inspire more connection. Gesture, facial expression, movement, using hands – music invites infants to take an active role in their own learning. If you watch, you will understand. If you listen, you will appreciate. They can do so much. The thinking and feeling infant will emerge, and you’ll see the whole child as the multidimensional, complex person that she is from birth.
I sing with infants and toddlers at an early learning center. On paper, that makes me “the music teacher.” In reality, though, I’m really “the music learner,” as the more time I spend singing with very young children, the more I know about and bond with them – a first step in the social and emotional development crucial for their lifelong happiness and success. You can learn from your child’s musicality, too.
Some children reveal themselves outwardly, unabashedly and quickly; they are quick to warm and engage. Music brings out their social flexibility. They open themselves up right away to you, to caregivers, to friends. The social/musical learning can take many forms and varies by age even within the first year of life. Here are some of the characteristics:
- The child comes close, touches me, touches my guitar.
- The child draws upon whatever physical abilities he has to get to the source of the music, whether it is creeping, crawling or walking.
- The child uses physical ability to make music, play instruments, run, dance, play my guitar.
- The child makes eye contact, sometimes sustained while I’m singing to her.
- The child looks in my bag of materials, takes out my puppets and songbooks and is comfortable indulging in curiosity. He turns the pages of my book when I’m singing or strums my guitar when I’m playing it.
But not all children look outwardly comfortable, responsive or active. Sometimes the two-year-old who is silent in music class serenades parents with all the verses in the bathtub at night. Children have many different styles and developmental paths, and it can be challenging for adults to read their responses. It can take time – perhaps months of repeated experiences – before a child reveals a sign of what looks to us like musical engagement.
In what might be a dormant period (or perhaps just the child’s temperament) musical activity takes place inward. Sitting on a caregiver’s lap, seeming to be lost in thought, looking in another direction. Don’t assume that nothing is happening. Receptive, private, silent processing is active musical learning too. This is the way infants learn to speak, and this is the way they learn to express music.
Suddenly one day the child starts DOING things to let you know she is connected to the experience and connected to you. Children sing, they ask for more, they want you to read the same songbook over and over again. These are “a-ha!” moments, when adults say, “This is the person in there, and I’m grateful to meet you.” Here are some examples:
- A silent child starts to sing every word to a song. Expressive language may not even set in, but they sing your songs before they speak.
- As you sing a counting song, a child approaches offering to touch the tip of his counting finger with yours.
- As you sing an animal song with pictures, a child brings you the plastic toy duck, cat, cow, all in the order of the song.
- A child who has been fearful when you came to the room, now greets you by name or sits next to you.
- An infant who has spent months watching you do hand plays suddenly starts to do the moves, revealing careful dexterity and attention to detail before she can even crawl.
Songs reveal children’s thinking, feelings, and ability to move their hands and the body – truly whole child education. Songs reveal a child’s growing relationship with you, his teachers and friends. A song isn’t just something that happens to a child and it isn’t just entertainment. The song contains the inner life, the private world, receptive language, and also the external exhibition of what a child can do and who she is. Remember, it doesn’t have to be complex. Any song you sing is the right song for your child. If you play guitar, a few chords are just enough.
Music teachers, parents and caregivers who learn side by side with infants and toddlers are privileged to witness the unfolding of competence and creativity evident from birth. In order to recognize the learning, we need to move away from a performative model where a teacher entertains. Invite the child to lead from birth, as responsive and interactive music making allows parents, teachers and caregivers to see, and of course listen, in new and more meaningful ways. What a joy, and what a fascinating opportunity for the important adults in a young child’s life!
There are many thinkers who place a high value on the power of observing children to get to know their thinking and feelings. Among them are educational philosopher Maxine Greene, Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi, pediatrician Emmi Pikler and RIE® (Resources for Infant Educarers) founder Magda Gerber. All of them have influenced my thinking on how musical observations can deepen understanding of children and I’m grateful for their path breaking work.
Renee Bock is a dedicated early childhood educator, who is currently the Educational Director at Explore+Discover, a social learning center in Manhattan that is dedicated to setting the standard for infant and toddler care and education. Renee has more than a decade of experience in the field and holds a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College in New York. In her present position, she is helping Explore+Discover open the first of 27 New York City centers focused on children from 3 months to two years old. She can be reached at [email protected].
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