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.

Initial Reactions to Party Politics and ECEC

The Liberals and NDP have announced their stance on addressing the unnecessary, inconsistent, and unequal access to high-quality ECEC, should they be re-elected as our federal government. As a non-political citizen who has recently become passionate about access to childcare (not a parent, nor a RECE – yet, but a critical undergraduate researcher nonetheless), I’ll share my opinion for anyone willing to hear it – and for the record I am not incentivized in any way, I am merely exploring this mode of advocacy for the field. The breakdown of their stance is actually a decent summary of – and, in theory, an ideal solution to – many of the multifaceted issues regarding the current state of affairs for this sector (spared an actual review of the numbers because this is yet to be an area of my expertise).

Documentation released by the Liberals highlight several issues regarding: lack of available spaces in early learning and child care programs, high and varying costs to access these spaces, the rigidity of these spaces that restricts access for families who work outside of the structured 9-5 range, and acknowledges that it is typically women that are coping with the responsibility of providing or finding childcare. Lowering the cost of fees to access childcare and opening up spots is necessary – but this monetary decision must also consider the cost of paying the additional educators necessary to maintain age-specific ratios (and their benefits), full fee collection, the materials required to support those new spots, as well as physical spaces of current childcare centres and maximum group size. Some programs may have a delicate financial balance due to our lack of national support, and changes to current programs may need to be gradual. An additional element to consider is that lowering cost to families in order to increase access to childcare means reducing the initial cost of fees, rather than reimbursing through tax-credits. In addition, I do appreciate the investment in after-school programs for children under the age of 10, but I am not sure if I completely agree with this specific method of offering childcare, mostly because I am unfamiliar with these options due to their common exemption from the CCEYA.

To be honest, I do love what I see about providing professional development opportunities for educators, but I do not love the idea of lowering the cost of tuition for this specific degree program. To my knowledge, we actually have more of an issue with knowledgable, passionate educators leaving the sector, due to inadequate working conditions and compensation, rather than a need to recruit more educators. What I would prefer to see would be a subsidizing tuition cost for educators who currently hold their ECE registration to advance their practice and be able to move into leadership roles through obtaining undergraduate or graduate degrees. There should be more early years educators who are supported in receiving graduate level education so that they can bring their expertise to administrative and policy-level roles. I do love what I see regarding a national secretariat establishing the ground work for a national child-care system working closely with the Expert Panel on Early Learning and Care – but I remain skeptical that this will ensure we actually receive a national system.
Source: https://www.liberal.ca/wpcontent/uploads/2019/09/Backgrounder_Before-and-After-School-Care.pdf

The NDP have so far released a vague but accurate statement regarding how they would support the ECEC sector, including the total amount of money they would dedicate to the field, but without specifics of where this money would be going. What they are saying sounds cool, but I really have no idea about who will be getting the money and how it will help children and families access childcare specifically, or how it will support educators.
Source: https://www.ndp.ca/affordabilityfocus=13934112&nothing=nothing

So far the parties have failed to address how these decisions will affect the variations in auspice (for-profit or non-profit centres), regulation of programs (unregulated/regulated, licensing, and accreditation), the representation of wider diversity amongst families seeking childcare including cultural, linguistic, and inclusion supports, and consolidation of services such that education and childcare are both considered national priorities while still retaining the early years’ nurturing, empowering, family-oriented, relationships-based pedagogy.

In summary, the Liberals’ promises and ideals are very good in terms of moving Canada towards an evidence-based approach to childcare that is more in-line with our industrialization and progress. Even amidst my criticism I am very pleased to be reading about a more socialist approach to an issue that is at the core of our inequality and imbalance of family-oriented policies. It is time to do better.