Music in Early Education and Care: A Call to Find Our Voices and Reimagine Music Within Pedagogy

Throughout my training as an early childhood educator (ECE), I have been provided with the necessary tools to reflect on my experiences, better understand and question how learning happens, and advocate for the rights of children, educators, and families. This training has taught me not only to continuously acknowledge my own social location but to critically assess scenarios and address injustices. I have been extremely empowered and honoured to learn with the community of educators that I know.

One of the most delightful parts about entering the ECEC field at this particular point in time, is that I see the potential for (and utmost respect for) arts education and artistic play. I see the shift from crafts to art. I see the value of and standard for young children’s expression. I see art being considered fundamental to wellbeing and as a tool to foster belonging. I see art being used to engage and invite children and extend their interests. I have witnessed the power of an art studio. But herein lies a discrepancy I noticed: we study and document children’s visual art is such extraordinary ways. But we don’t yet do the same with music.

I started asking educators and teachers around me why they thought that music is not given the same acknowledgement and respect as art. The responses have ranged from “we already sing all day long with the children – it is great for transitions, for routines, for extending interests, and for setting the mood,” and “children are too young to engage in formal music education,” to “well, encouraging fine art makes more sense because children have to be able to hold a pencil once they go to school.”

None of these responses satisfied me. I envision something different: Investment in music. Music studios. Sound exploration materials that are accessible to children at all times. Musical instruments that are both real and designed for children. Opportunities to play with sound the same way we play with other learning materials.

But in order for this to be imaginable, I believe we first have to challenge our understanding of music, as adults. The auditory patterns that we consider to be songs, our personal comfort levels with singing, our ideas about children’s musical competence all may require critical reconsideration. Consider, for example, the competent infant’s rhythmic kicking that we swoon over, but the toddler’s persistent tapping of a toy that we discourage (Young, 2003). Further, when we begin to sing the alphabet song in our lower register: can children’s ears hear the low frequency so similar to our speaking voice; what do you notice when you sing it a higher range/key? (Young, 2016) Moreover, if visual art is so critical to holding a pencil in school, then aren’t skills in auditory discrepancy, self-regulation through movement or humming, and the rhythm, cadence, and auditory discrimination skills so fundamental to hearing and speaking in conversation?

Further, music has long been linked to developmental outcomes and is inherently connected to the skills that are considered to be essential for school readiness (Barrett, Flynn, Brown & Welch, 2019). But, I digress. Simply put: I believe music deserves more recognition. In order to quell my curiousity and to better understand this discrepancy, I embarked on a literature review (not to further highlight the benefits of music for developmental outcomes, but,) to investigate the value of music and approaches to its use in the ECEC field.

Here is a summary of what I found: training programs do not sufficiently prepare educators to competently or confidently include music in their practice (Niland & John, 2016). Yet, educators value music and often deliver it well (Ehrlin & Wallerstedt, 2014) but are not well-equipped to engage in improvisation and informal learning and have to get over some fears before being able to do so (Wright & Kanellopoulos, 2010). Further, the ways in which children currently tend to experience music in ECEC programs is through educators’ singing, there is often very little provision of music-making materials for children, and the use of recorded music tends to lack diversity (Vist & Os, 2019).

In an interview with Maria Cabal (MSc., RECE; acting Pedagogical Leader), she echoed what this literature revealed: there is a startling reliance on recorded music and unnecessary controlled access to instruments, but the reliance on singing might actually be a good thing: children hear our voices in real life, and doing so calms the nervous system. Maria also highlighted that music use is inextricably connected to the four foundations of How Does Learning Happen, but moreover, a fundamental component of simply being and existing in this world. Not to be confused with music enhancing quality of life, Maria said “You only have to reach for your chest to feel the beat… We are alive because of a rhythm.” Moreover, music is neither solely a developmental tool nor a topic of content learning to master in ECEC, but rather, part of our commitment to fostering the development of strategies and dispositions for lifelong learning.

So I ask, how have we gone this far and evolved in ways that has removed the importance of music for living with children? How have we moved from, at one time educators being required to perform piano (Ehrlin & Wallerstedt, 2014) to educators stating “I’m just not a good singer”? How can we help create more just practices that do not deny children the importance of music but also ensure educators’ comfort (within already inadequate working conditions and uncompensated expectations)?

Through my own critical reflection on questions like these, I discovered that not only do I hold music with extremely high regard, but I do so with some formal music training – meaning that I have some musical knowledge but not so much that I solely rely on this training to guide the music use in my practice. Additionally, I developed a professional opinion which essentially posits that educators should be supported in their development of musical confidence and competence as a prerequisite for entering the field – the same way that we must learn to assist in serving food, changing diapers, and reading stories out loud. It may be uncomfortable, but in the best interest of the children, it is necessary and required.

In response to these learnings, I wanted to call on educators to take it upon themselves to critically reflect on their own use of music, and begin to reimagine what music could look like within ECEC. The following are some considerations to review:

  • Educators can feasibly request and attend music trainings that best support educators in understanding children’s musicality, offered by trained musicians, and that also support educator’s development of improvisation skills. Trainings should be taught by music educators who are trained in music and who have the knowledge of children’s musicality (Ehrlin & Wallerstedt, 2014).
  • Educators-in-training can prioritize taking music courses at the college/University level until such courses are mandatory.
  • If you have a rationale for your use of music, I ask: who benefits? Do the children benefit from hearing human voice in person? Do you benefit from avoiding feeling vulnerable? Do children have access to sound-making learning materials in the same way that you offer visual art materials? Do you feel that it is used as a content learning, a developmental tool (avenue for other learning), a supplementary consideration, or as a required element of programming? I would argue there is no better way to explore your own musical abilities than genuinely engaging as a co-learner with the children in your care.
  • Consider how you use rhythm, pitch, and melody in your voice when reading, guiding routines, and engaging in conversation. How does this facilitate closeness, sensory regulation, and intrigue?
  • What kind of music repository of children’s songs do you have at this point in time? Does it represent and reflect appropriate diversity considerations? Can you use it to support a range of programming?
  • What are the implications of Ontario’s “avoid singing” clause in the re-opening plan?

Additionally, here are a few books and music programs to consider:

Research-Based Books:

  • Burton, S. L., & Taggart, C. C. (Eds.). (2011). Learning from young children: Research in early childhood music. R&L Education.
  • McPherson, G. (Ed.). (2016). The child as musician: A handbook of musical development. Oxford University Press.
  • Young, S. (2003). Music with under-fours. Routledge.
  • Young, S., & Ilari, B. (Eds.). (2019). Music in Early Childhood: Multi-disciplinary Perspectives and Inter-disciplinary Exchanges (Vol. 27). Springer.

Music Programs for Educators of Young Children:

Additional Resources for Educators and Parents (at home):

References

Barrett, M. S., Flynn, L. M., Brown, J., & Welch, G. F. (2019). Beliefs and values about music in early childhood education and care: Perspectives from practitioners. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 724. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00724

Ehrlin, A., & Wallerstedt, C. (2014). Preschool teachers’ skills in teaching music: two steps forward one step back. Early Child Development and Care, 184(12), 1800-1811.

Niland, A., & St. John, P. A. (2016). Special issue on early childhood music education. Research Studies in Music Education, 38(1), 3–7. DOI: 10.1177/1321103X16641855

Vist, T., & Os, E. (2019). Music education through the lens of ITERS-R: Discussing results from 206 toddler day care groups. Research Studies in Music Education 42(1) 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/1321103X19828785

Wright, R., & Kanellopoulos, P. (2010). Informal music learning, improvisation and teacher education. British Journal of Music Education, 27(1), 71-87. DOI: 10.1017/S0265051709990210

Young, S. (2016). Early childhood music education research: An overview. Research Studies in Music Education, 38(1), 9-21. DOI: 10.1177/1321103X16640106

Additional Research to Consult

Hallam, S. (2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education28(3), 269-289.

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