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There is little, if anything, that can compare to the powerful effect of music in a child's life. The exposure to and active participation in music making at an early age stimulates the brain, engages the body and provides a perfect vehicle for self-expression and communication. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner famously stated that there are eight significant realms of intelligence and music is one of them. Equal in importance to math and language making music is as much a basic life skill as walking or talking. To put it simply: music makes children happy and happy children become productive and healthy adults.
I’ve been entertaining kids for 10 years and teaching kids music for even longer. I’ve been a Dad for 16 months, and according to my wife, I’m a serious noise maker! Needless to say, I like having fun with music. Here are ten easy ways that you can introduce music into your child’s life.
1) Get up and dance.
Kids can hardly sit still while music is playing. They just bounce and move and shake and spin to virtually everything they hear! Personally, I’m not a great dancer. I’m a really good side-to-side two stepper, and if there’s a good beat my head will be bobbin’ up and down as well — but that’s about it! The good news is, my limited dance moves can last a pretty long time with my son Miles. Getting up and moving to the music is a great way to connect with your child. Maybe a little dance segues into a quick hide-and-go-seek game, or an attack of the claw on the couch. Take it wherever it goes, but it all starts with moving your body. So get up, and get down!
2) Turn off the TV. Turn on the radio.
I definitely think there are some great TV programs for kids — including my own! — but we all know that it’s all too easy to just turn it on and leave it on. We are visual creatures, and the TV can steal away our spontaneity and creativity. So turn it off! There is no greater way to fill the air with something joyful than to put on some great music — audio only. It gives us the comfort we need and the connection we crave, while leaving us free to be active and engaged with our environment. It’s that simple: Turn off the TV, and turn on the radio!
3) Just sing! Make up songs without words and play games.
After mama’s heartbeat, the very first sounds that children get used to hearing are their parents’ voices. Your child will love your voice even if you don’t — this is the ultimate judgment-free zone — so sing your heart out! With really young kids, singing in a soft, quiet head voice can be very soothing. My son primarily vocalizes using baby talk, and I’ve gotten into the habit of making up songs using his sounds. When we go out for walks, I just start making funny, repetitive rhythms of sounds, and sometimes he starts mimicking what I’m doing. I’ll listen for any phrases that he’s really grabbing onto and repeat them. If he changes his sound, I’ll begin mimicking him. It’s a great way to get him ready for real conversations. Changing the pitch of my voice (or the dynamic and timbre) often cracks him up! I’m sure I seem like a nut job to those passing us by, so I usually do this when no one else is around. Kids love these fun echo games, which also foster language development at a very early age.
4) Play music that you enjoy as much as your child.
This is really crucial. For better or worse, children will learn everything from watching you, so what are they going to learn if you seem annoyed while they’re listening to music? There is no need to play music for your kids that you yourself can’t stand. (This is why I’ve always insisted on making kids music that adults can enjoy, too.) Anything with a fun beat and a sing-able melody will do! Kids will love what you love, so don’t kill yourself by listening to Old MacDonald over and over. Put on that P-Funk album or some old-time bluegrass. Rediscover the old classics, like Motown or the Beatles. Whatever you like, they will like. Start early, and save yourself from hours of musical torture!
5) Break out those old instruments.
I played the trumpet in high school, and I’m kicking myself now for selling my old horn. Not that I could play it very well now, but I wish I could dust off the old case and share it with my son today. If you play the guitar or piano, or if you have an old violin or clarinet laying around in the attic somewhere, now is the time dig it up! Your kids will have no idea that you can’t really play, and they’ll love seeing Dad march through the house with that old trombone, oompah loompah-ing his heart out! When the time comes for your child to choose an instrument to play, you’ll be glad you shared yours with them when they were young.
6) Go to concerts.
Summer is the best time to take your kids out to see live music. There are always festivals or concerts in the park or at the library. If you plan ahead, you can find events where kids don’t have to sit still in one spot, so they can play or dance or just romp around while live music is in the air. It’s great to take kids to a kids show, of course, but you shouldn’t hesitate to take them to see a Polka band or some fiddlers — anything upbeat and lively.
7) Recycle old materials into new instruments.
I’m not a very crafty person, but just about anyone can handle most of the craft ideas out there for making your own instruments. Take a paper cup and fill it with beans or rice. Tape up the top, and bam! — shakers aplenty. Old coffee can? Five-gallon bucket? Hello! Flip them over and bang away. Here’s a personal favorite: Take an old metal can and punch a tiny hole in the bottom. Thread a single guitar string through the hole, and screw on a narrow piece of wood, two or three feet long, to the side of the can. Attach the string to the top of the piece of wood and wind it tight around an eye hook (or a guitar tuning peg, if you have one). Pluck the string and change its pitch by slightly bending the piece of wood. Boing … Boing … Boing … Canjalele! Scissors and tape not your thing? No problem - just open up the cupboard, and you will find a plethora of interesting-sounding and -looking things to bang and play to your heart’s content. Exploring textures and sounds with different materials can be a really creative activity. What do wooden objects sound like? Metal? Plastic? Organize them into groups, or make up patterns that combine them. Here’s the easiest way to get started: Play a steady beat, and then stop! — like in a freeze dance. Simply learning to start and stop together is a big step!
8) Go to a music class.
In the last 10-15 years, music classes for babies and toddlers have popped up all over the place. These mommy-and-me-style classes either traumatize participants or introduce them to a lifetime of loving music. A lot of these programs are pretty great, but it really comes down to the individual teacher, so start asking around. Nothing beats a personal recommendation, and most of the classes out there offer a drop-in trial class, so go check them out and sign up! And when the teacher asks you to sing along, do it!
9) Turn everyday things into a jam.
After our baby was born, my wife made up this little song she would sing when she brushed her teeth: Brush, brush, brush… brush, brush, brush … brush your teethers … brush your teethers. Now, our little son Miles sings this little tune every time he sees us brush our teeth! More often than not, he happily grabs his little toothbrush and brushes his teeth to the song, too. By making everyday things into fun little jams, we can save ourselves a lot of stress, as our children learn to associate the mundane chores of life with something fun and expressive. Music makes everything more fun, so take advantage of that and get jamming!
10) K. I. S. S. – Keep It Simple, Sweetheart
With all of the top 10 lists out there it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start. There’s no immediate need to fill every moment of your child’s life with musical activities or to go out and buy a ton of instruments. Like music itself, it should all feel easy and natural. So keep it simple. Pick one activity and try it just for a few minutes here and there. Wake up one morning and put the radio on first thing. Clean up the kitchen and bang out a little ditty with the serving spoon. Sing a song you know out loud! Do the twist to “The Twist”! Most importantly, have fun and enjoy yourself!
Alex Mitnick is a teacher, performer and composer of music for children with over 16 national awards for excellence in children's entertainment. He has released five albums, a live concert DVD, tours with his band Alex & The Kaleidoscope Band, and, is the star of the children's TV show, Alex & The Kaleidoscope. Alex is also the director of music at the Princeton Montessori School in Princeton, NJ and is a faculty member of the Princeton Center For Teacher Education where he teaches workshops to teacher who want to integrate more music into their everyday classrooms.