Introducing Toddlers to Music

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Introducing Toddlers to Music
Music seems a natural accompaniment in a toddler’s life. Young children might sing to their stuffed animals, tap their feet to the rhythm of nursery rhymes, and enjoy the sound of their parents singing to them — even if mom and dad can’t quite carry a tune. But this early introduction to music does more than entertain. It can kick-start learning, serve as an important cue in your child’s routine, and offer lifelong benefits.

Music contributes to what experts call “a rich sensory environment.” This simply means exposing kids to a wide variety of tastes, smells, textures, colors, and sounds — experiences that can forge more pathways between the cells in their brains.

These neural connections will help a child in almost every area of school, including reading and math. Just listening to music can make these connections, but the biggest impact on your child comes if he or she actively participates in musical activities.

Of course there’s another reason to introduce music into your toddler’s world: It’s enjoyable for both of you. That will come as no surprise to parents who sing songs with their child, sway and twirl together to favorite CDs, or listen to lullabies as they rock their child to sleep.


I Got Music, I Got Rhythm
Between the ages of 1 and 3, your child will respond best to music when he or she actively experiences it. Passive listening (like in the car) is fine, but look for opportunities to get your child rocking, marching, rolling, tapping, clapping, and moving to the beat.

Share songs that go along with simple hand motions or dance moves, like The “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Two Little Blackbirds,” or the “Hokey Pokey.” For younger kids, a parent’s lap is a great place to put music and movement together. Have the child face you and be sure to smile as you bounce your knees to chants like “Trot, Trot to Boston” or “To Market, To Market.”

If you don’t know a lot of kids’ songs and rhymes, you can borrow books, CDs, and DVDs from your library. But also feel free to make it up as you go along. Create your own silly songs and hand motions. Try to use your child’s name in the song or rhyme. Or just turn on some music and dance with your child. Show him or her how to move with the music by twirling quickly to a fast song and swooping slowly to a song with a longer, slower beat. Introduce props like scarves, balloons, or stuffed animals to dance with.

At this age, your child can sporadically keep time — you’ll notice this if you give him or her a pot and a wooden spoon and sing a song or play some music that has a steady tempo. You can encourage this by grabbing your own spoon, inviting your toddler to bang out a rhythm, and then imitating what he or she does. Extend the game by tapping a slightly more complicated rhythm and inviting your child to follow or by asking your child to tap on different surfaces — the floor, your back, a pillow — and seeing what sound these different taps make.


Music Can Teach
Songs are a lot more fun than flashcards and they really can teach your child some important facts and skills. For instance, singing the ABC song can help your child learn the alphabet, “This Old Man” teaches counting, and “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” helps with rhyming and memory. And you can encourage creativity in your child by singing new words to familiar tunes like “Drive, Drive, Drive Your Car” for “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or by inserting your child’s name in “Did You Ever See a Lassie?”

You’re likely to find your child gloms on to a few favorite songs and rhymes and wants to hear them again and again. While this may grow dull for you, your child is on to something. Repetition helps kids learn. It’s important to note that toddlers won’t learn to read or understand music at this point. They won’t pick up individual notes, for instance, but they will experiment with different pitches. You may notice your toddler singing made-up songs that slide from high to low and back again. Usually these songs will not have a regular rhythm.

Children this age also are learning about keeping a steady beat and making coordinated movements — skills that are critical to math and reading later on. Encourage this development by tapping the beat with your foot while you sing and chanting simple nursery rhymes.


Adding Instruments
If you’d like to introduce an instrument, keep it simple. Very young toddlers will enjoy instruments they can shake — bells, rattles, shakers, tambourines, or rain sticks. As your child gets older and a little more coordinated, try rhythm instruments he or she can bang, like drums, cymbals, or xylophones. Some 2- to 3-year-olds can use simple wind instruments, like a recorder, a pipe whistle, or a kazoo. Many companies now make musical instruments that are appropriately sized and shaped for little hands and that are safe for toddlers — check the label when you buy them.

Kids usually don’t start formal instruction to learn an instrument until they’re a good bit older, but you might have heard of the Suzuki method. It’s geared to kids as young as 2 or 3 for the violin, but parents must be present for the lessons and involved in both the instruction and the learning process.

If your child does begin formal instruction, make sure it is with a certified instructor at a reputable school and that the instrument he or she uses is adapted for a young child. And, of course, you’ll want to have reasonable expectations of how much a child can master at this young age.


Music Can Soothe
Once your toddler is familiar with music, it can be a source of comfort and soothing. Don’t be surprised if you hear your child singing in bed or while playing, or serenading dolls or stuffed animals, especially if you have made a habit of singing to him or her yourself.

When music is part of the everyday routine, these songs can help your child know what to expect and feel more secure. For instance, if you always sing a lullaby at bedtime or naptime, your child will come to see this as a cue for “go to sleep.”

Here are some other ways music can help your child make transitions through the day:

Picking up toys
(“toys away, toys away, it’s time to put the toys away”)

Brushing teeth
(“brushing, brushing, brushing teeth,” sung to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down”)

Taking a bath
(“Now it’s bath time, now it’s bath time, yes, it is” sung to the tune of “Are You Sleeping”)

In addition, you can use music to alter your child’s mood — and your own. While soft, gentle music seems just right for bedtime, louder, bouncier music could be just the boost you both need when it’s time to clean up the toys.


Music All Around
Kids’ music CDs are great, but don’t forget to share your own favorite music with your kids. A toddler who loves Beethoven or Bruce Springsteen? Why not? Folk music and music from other cultures also can be good choices for kids. When you try new music, ask your child if he or she likes it and discuss your opinion as well.

Though your child might not be ready for a night at the opera, you might be able to find live performances geared toward children. Museums, libraries, and bookstores often offer these child-friendly events. Outdoor concerts where your child can run around without disturbing anyone are also a good bet.

You might also enroll your child in a music class. If you do, it’s important to make sure that the class is developmentally appropriate — for children this age, that means it shouldn’t last longer than 45 minutes and it should be something you and your child do together. Classes are a fun way for you and your toddler to enjoy music; they’re also good sources for musical activities to try at home and CDs to help build a repertoire of songs to sing with your child. Check the music department at your local university if you need help finding a music class.

Even if you do take a class with your child, remember that you are your child’s first and most important teacher when it comes to music — and so much more. To help your child really benefit from a music class, be sure to bring the music and games you learn there into your home.


Just listening to music can help your toddler excel in reading, writing, and mathmatics.

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