Molding Minds: Music in the Early Childhood Classroom

If you’ve ever had any involvement with preschools–whether as a teacher, a parent, or even if you can reach back all those years to your own preschool experience–you’ve probably realized just how big a role music plays in the classroom. From greeting children in the mornings and sending them off in the afternoons, to signaling transitions, to easing them into nap time, to teaching them new skills and concepts like the ABCs and rhyming, music is everywhere and vitally important in early childhood development.

We’ve written a lot about music’s beneficial effects on the mind and its value in the classroom. In “Music & Math,” we discussed music’s impact on pattern recognition, executive functioning, and on the cultivation of discipline. In “Music as Panacea,” we elucidated all the ways music can help children with special needs–and those without!–from encouraging children to focus, let go of stress, regulate their emotions, connect with others and unleash their creativity. Given all these benefits, it makes sense that music would be especially valuable in the early childhood classroom. At that young age, children are just gaining these life skills and are therefore most receptive to music’s benefits: Scholastic cites Dr. Susan Barry, a neurobiologist at Mt. Holyoke, who says, “Music molds the mind…Making music actively engages the brain’s synapses. As young children participate in music-based activities, their muscles, senses, and intellect are engaged simultaneously; they are exercising their brains in ways they rarely do. Long-term musical training actually re-organizes the brain.”

You’re likely acquainted with the concept of babies’ and young children’s brains being more capable of learning two languages at the same time than adults’. This is because the brains of infants who grow up in bilingual households are specialized to process the sounds of two languages, whereas those who grow up in monolingual households are specialized to process the sounds of only one language. That second language is getting in there early and actually changing the way the brain develops. This is just like music! Teaching children music and surrounding them with it from an early age actually changes the way their brains form and ensures that they develop with a greater aptitude for more advanced and refined physical, social, mental and emotional skills.

Some preschool teachers may worry that they don’t have the musical ability or training to lead kids in music-based activities. Perhaps they can’t carry a tune or don’t remember any children’s songs. Scholastic has a number of tips for those who feel challenged, including building your own Youtube library of favorite songs, making up songs and not worrying about the tune, and experimenting with different “instruments,” feet and hands being more than acceptable examples.

Ultimately, it’s not about how good a musician or singer you are; it’s about engaging children in interactive activities, joining together in fun learning exercises and connecting across generations, backgrounds and skill sets. It is in fact possible to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” even with a tin ear and if you do it with confidence and a sense of play, you’ll provide a positive, joyful model of relating to the world and oneself as well as to academic material.