The Music, Movement, and Learning Connection
Reprinted with permission from Young Children Copyright NAEYC (2001)
by Hap Palmer
"Ricky, please stay in your seat." "Stop wiggling and pay attention, Betty." "You can't run out the door, Howard, Get back in the room and sit down!"
That voice was mine 30 years ago when I first began teaching. I'm sitting there, strumming a guitar, wondering why "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is not engaging the children's interest. I'm tempted to write a song called "Where Does All This Squirming Energy Come From?"
Then, in the midst of total frustration, I had a sudden insight: Why not work with children's natural desire to move and be actively involved...So I started combining music and movement and writing songs that invite children to get out of their seats and experience the world through active engagement.
Choose Songs, that encourage, active involvement.
That first teaching job was at a school for the "trainable mentally retarded," an awfully limiting place and name for children with emotional, social, and language problems. We teachers were told to teach only "self-help skills."
One day on the playground, nine-year-old Charles came to my side, stood quietly for a moment, then looked up and said, "This is a school for dumb children. Why do you want to work here?" Momentarily paralyzed, I mumbled something---I don't recalI what---and was thankful that recess was over. But back in the classroom, Charles stopped in front of a bookshelf, pointed to a dusty globe on the highest shelf, and declared, "I want to learn about that."
Charles was not alone in his desire to learn. Many of the other children wanted to know about numbers and letters and other things, and they envied the school work and stories brought home by their brothers and sisters.
That's when I began writing songs that use music and movement to expand vocabulary and teach recognition of numbers, letters, and colors.
Listen to children and include their ideas and interests in planning the curriculum.
Picture a class of active four- and five-year-olds solving problems and creating movements as they dance and find ways to form their bodies into different letter shapes.
Learn the ABCs with ease
While getting fit and having fun.
Alphabetize your exercise
And do your moves one by one.
D, droop...("Alphabet in Motion," from Can a Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet?).
As the children shift from shape to shape, they develop balance, coordination, strength, and endurance; learn the elements of movement; and gain a sense of mastery of their bodies and spatial relationships. At the same time they connect letter symbols and sounds and increase their vocabulary. In this noncompetitive setting, the children learn to work cooperatively in a group and to share space without interfering with the movement of others. They develop confidence and self-esteem because their ideas and creative expressions are valued. Many dimensions of development are touched: physical, intellectual, social, and emotional---in other words, the whole child.
|Elements of Movement
Words that describe movement are a fundamental part of a child's vocabulary. To enhance a child's movement vocabulary is to enhance her overall vocabulary. This is valuable because understanding word meaning is the first step in developing oral and written communication skills. Understanding is enhanced through movement; there is an intimate relationship between language and the body (Asher 2000).
Body parts---head, neck, shoulders, back, stomach, arms, legs, hands, feet, wrists, ankles, toes, fingers, elbows, knees
Actions---walk, run, jump, hop, gallop, skip, leap, roll, crawl, clap, bend, wiggle, swing, shake, turn, twist, tiptoe, freeze
Space---high/medium/low, front/back/side, up/down, big/small, curved/straight, right/left, far/near, up/down, wide/narrow
Qualities (time and force)---slow/fast, heavy/light, sudden/smooth, strong/weak, tense/loose
Relationships---over/under, on/off, near/far, inside/outside, in front/behind/around
This is only a partial list. When children are familiar with basic words, introduce colorful variations such as bounce, bubble, crinkle, crouch, dangle, dart, fling, float, glide, lunge, melt, ooze, plunge, quiver, rise, scamper, scatter, wobble, and zoom.
Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences ( 1993) is another way of viewing the whole child. Gardner broadens the traditional notion of verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence to include musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist intelligences, and he suggests that people learn through unique combinations of these intelligences. Music and movement, with its rich combination of rhythm, melody, lyric, motion, and group interaction, touches each of these areas.
Use music and movement as a way to recognize the whole child.
Children love music and movement for its own sake, and activities need not be centered around a specific concept or skill. Adults, however, may wonder about the value of singing nonsense songs and just plain acting silly.
Children love music and movement for its own sake, and activities need not be centered around a specific concept or skill. While the children are having fun, important learning is taking place.
Here is the first verse of a favorite song at my five-year-old daughter's child care center:
What shall we do with a broken clock? Stuff it in the closet!
What shall we do with a rusty lock? Stuff it in the closet!
What shall we do with a leaky pail? Stuff it in the closet!
What shall we do with a bent-up nail? Stuff it in the closet!
Now open the door just once more .... [CRASH!]
Oh no, everything fell on the floor!
("Stuff It In the Closet," from Rhythms on Parade).
The children sing the Stuff-It line after each question. At the end of each verse, they clap their hands quickly and loudly or clang rhythm instruments to make the sound of things failing on the floor. One day as they were singing the repeated phrase, they started doing pushing gestures, and this has become a ritual.
While the children are having fun, important learning is taking place. Musical elements are introduced, and the rhymes, rhythms, and repetition sensitize children to the sounds of language (phonemes), an important predictor of later success in reading (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp 2000).
Elements of Music
Volume or dynamics (loud, soft)
Tempo (fast, slow)
Duration (long, short, even, uneven)
Pitch (high, low, up, down)
After Introducing the song, teachers encourage verbalization, creativity, and self-expression by asking the children such questions as
Then everybody sings the song again using the children's ideas.
- What other things might people stuff in a closet?
- Are there better ways to get rid of these things?
- Which things could you recycle?
Music and movement sessions are a collaboration with the children, and they often change spontaneously. One hot August day when I'm trying to move on to the next song before I lose the attention of a wiggling group of 40 preschoolers, Adam desperately waves his hand. "I went to San Francisco!" he yells. I'm trying to figure out where this is coming from or what it has to do with anything when two more voices quickly chime in: "I went to Tennessee!" "I went to London!" "Oh," I say,"we went to London too."
Suddenly every child in the room must tell me personally where they went this summer. I want to recognize each child as an individual---to encourage self expression---but there are just too many kids and the noise is deafening.
That evening, while recuperating on the sofa, I had a quick flash; I realized what I could have done. On my next visit to the class I invite the children to speak one at a time, and we write down the travel destination next to each name. We take a familiar melody and use the words of the children, singing loosely to the tune of "Paw Paw Patch":
Adam went to San Francisco.
[sung 3 times]
Meet my traveling friends.
Then we feature a different child in each verse.
Sarah went to Tennessee...
Laura went to South Dakota...
As we sing the name, the child moves in the circle in a way that shows how they traveled. One flies like an airplane, one holds an imaginary steering wheel, another rolls like a wheel. Geography, forms of transportation, and motor skills are all woven into a lesson that comes from the children.
Make music and movement sessions a collaboration with the children.
Watch and listen to how children react. Take cues from their interests and comments. A vital part of the music, movement, and learning connection is the realization we are all songwriters. Young children begin by chanting syllables and words and then move on to narratives and imaginative stories. They enjoy substituting new words in familiar songs.
Choosing Songs for
Music, Movement, and Learning
Select songs that
Recordings that have both vocal and instrumental versions of each song make it easy to sing along with new lyrics.
- encourage active involvement
- relate to the interests of the children
- engage the whole child
- have repetitive easy-to-learn phrases
- emphasize rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration
Teachers can start with a favorite such as "Old MacDonald's Farm," then stimulate creativity with follow-up questions. What other animals might live on a farm? Can you name other places where animals might be found? Do you have a pet? Where does it stay? What kind of sound does it make?
The children can create their own verses using their names and the animals they have at home. A selection that encourages both singing and moving can be introduced, such as the song "Sammy."
This is a song about Sammy.
His father sent him out to buy bread,
But Sammy didn't feel like walking.
He wished he could fly instead, and he said,
If I were a bird I would fly to the store ... (from Getting to Know Myself).
As a follow-up, teachers can ask children what animal they would like to be. Then sing the song again using the animal and the child's name. For example,
This is a song about Clara.
Her father sent her out to buy bread,
But Clara didn't feel like walking.
She wished she could gallop instead, and she said,
If I were a pony I would gallop to the store...("I'm Glad I'm Me" [variation on "Sammy"], from Early Childhood Classics).
Plan follow-up activities that recognize children individually and include their ideas.
After raising three children to adulthood, I now find myself in the unusual situation of having a five-year-old daughter and two grand-daughters ages three and one. After years of working with school-age children, I am back in the world of infants and toddlers.
Revisiting this age is even more fascinating in light of the recent brain research suggesting that young children are biologically primed for learning. Apparently, we are born with virtually all the brain nerve cells we will ever have. In the early years, our brains produce countless connections (synapses) between nerve cells (neurons), and the connections are reinforced through activity and experience. However, if we don't use the connections often enough, the brain prunes them, especially after we reach 12 (Shore 1997).
So, as I return to classic songs such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Wheels on the Bus," I appreciate their timeless value in connecting music, movement, and learning.
Some Songs That Introduce Elements of Movement and Music
"Head Shoulder Knees and Toes"
"If You're Happy and You Know It"
"I'm a Little Teapot"
"I'm a Pretzel"
"Itsy Bitsy Spider"
"Oh, What a Miracle"
"Open Shut Them"
"Put Your Hands Up in the Air"
"Ring Around the Rosy"
"The Bean Bag"
"The Hokey Pokey"
"The Mice Go Marching"
"Wheels on the Bus"
Using traditional songs as a starting point, adults and children can create additional verses. For example, after singing the traditional song "Ring around the Rosy," jump, run, and tip-toe around the rosy. Here's a verse that can be added to the ever-favorite "I'm a Little Teapot":
I'm a little teapot dancing at the party.
See my handle rock up and down.
My lid is slippy swirlin'
spout is tippy twirlin'.
See my bottom swivel around.
All the little teacups love to see me wiggle
They giggle in their saucers with glee.
I'm a rock and rollin' roly-poly soul now,
Won't you come and dance with me?...(from Early Childhood Classics).
A vital part of the music and movement experience is an exploration of the elements of movement. With young children, identifying body parts is a good place to begin. For example,
I have hands---watch me clap.
I have feet---watch me stamp.
Oh, what a miracle am I ("Oh, What a Miracle," from Walter the Waltzing Worm).
Five- to seven-year-old children can combine elements of movement with an understanding of word families.
Shake a part of your body that rhymes with sand,
rhymes with grand,
rhymes with land...
Circle a part that rhymes with boulder,
rhymes with colder,
rhymes with older...("Rhyme Time Band." (from Can Cockatoos Count by Twos?)
A vital part of the music, movement, and learning connection is the realization we are all songwriters.
Music and movement activities evolve with the developmental level and interests of the children. My older daughter teaches second grade, and we introduced to her class a call-and-response song about ways to say hello in 15 languages.
Hola, hola, says hello in Spanish
Hejsan, hejsan, that's the word in Swedish.
Jambo, jambo, says it in Swahili.
'Round and 'round the world we go with ways to say hello.
("'Round the World with Ways to Say Hello," from Can a Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet?).
Through music and movement children learn respect for other cultures as well as dance and music skills.
We also created a "folk" dance to go with the song the children performed at their school's Peace Building Festival. Through music and movement they learned respect for other cultures as well as dance and music skills.
I make a connection too
As a parent volunteer at my youngest daughter's preschool, I am struck by the variety of children's responses, each time I come to sing. Paolo listens in stillness, a blank expression on his face, but his mother tells me later how excited he was about "the man with the guitar." Megan listens with fascination, then spontaneously stands and claps. Nina and William jump up and bounce and wiggle in an expression of uncontainable energy. Although the responses vary, it's obvious that children's language, music, and movement skills are being reinforced.
I now know the answer to the question that bewildered me during my early years as a music teacher. Where does all this squirming energy come from? From the billions of active neurons hungry for stimulation and experience. I have come to appreciate the marvelous opportunities music and movement offer children for rich and varied learning experiences.
Asher, J.J. 1996. Learning another language through actions: The complete teacher's guidebook. 6th ed. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks.
Gardner, H.  1993. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. 10th anniv. ed. New York: Basic.
Neuman, S.B., C, Copple, & S. Bredekamp. 2002 Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washingtom DC: NAEYC.
Shore, R. 1997. Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development. New York: Families and Work Institute.
For further reading
Boswell, J., ed. 1985. The young child and music: Contemporary principles in child development and music education. Proceedings of the Music in Early Childhood Conference, Music Educators National Conference, Reston, Virginia.
Jones, E., & J. Nimmo.1994. Emergent curriculum. Washington DC: NAEYC.
Joyce, M., & P. Haley. 1993. First steps in teaching creative dance to children. 3d ed. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.
Mosston, M. 1966. Teaching physical education: From command to discovery. Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Ornstein, R. 1997. The right mind. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Ornstein, R., & R.F. Thompson. 1984. The amazing brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Palmer, H. 1983. Songs to enhance the movement vocabulary of young children. Unpublished master's thesis, University of California Los Angeles.
Ives, B. 1997. Little white duck and other children's favorites. Sony/Wonder.
Jenkins, E. 1989. You'll sing a song and I'll sing a song. Smithsonian Folkways.
Palmer, H. 1979. Getting to know myself. Educational Activities.
Palmer, H. 1983. Walter the waltzing worm. Educational Activities.
Palmer, H. 1994. So big. Hap-Pal Music.
Palmer, H. 1995. Rhythms on parade. Rev. exp. ed. Hap-Pal Music.
Palmer, H. 1998. Can a jumbo jet sing the alphabet? Hap-Pal Music.
Palmer, H. 2000. Early childhood classics: Old favorites with a new twist. Hap-Pal Music
Palmer, H. 2001. Can cockatoos count by twos? Rev.exp. ed. Hap-Pal Music.
Seeger, P. 1995. Stories and songs for little children. High Windy Audio.
Copyright © 2001 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at www.naeyc.org/resources/journal.
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