Working with Families: Music-Making in the Early Years

  • by Kate_MB

    Saturday, 15 September, 2012 - 09:31

Want to get adults and carers more engaged in early-years music-making?

The adult or adults who care for a younger child are the most important people in that child's life. Parents and carers are the primary educators for children under the age of five and they must be valued and respected as such. Involving families in early years music-making makes it possible for that music-making to continue at home and in the child's wide and varied life outside of nursery or childcare.


About me

I have been using music in the early years since 2002. I have worked in a variety of settings with families: from toddler groups in the west end of Newcastle, to a family band which ran for five years in Horden Infant’s School,  to ticketed fee paying sessions in The Sage Gateshead, to my current work in Children’s Centres in North Tyneside. I have my own way of working in the early years, which is based on experience and utilises my skill-set. I don’t think there are any rules, or that what I do is the best. I just try to be the best I can be and inspire others to enjoy their own music-making and singing and to do this more with younger children. I hope this article inspires you to think about what works best for you when working with families with younger children.

Join in, contribute, and share your views by adding comments below. You’ll get so much more out of this network the more you put in. That has certainly been my experience.

So is there a single best way to engage families in early years music-making? In my opinion it a definite 'no'. It really depends on the setting in which you find yourself and adapting accordingly.


Consider first why are the families there family on the couch playing music

Is it just to see you and make music? If yes, then you need to plan out an actual ‘session’ with a structure which lends itself to being repeated with songs and themes changing.

If you are in a toddler group, then perhaps mam or dad is there for a much needed break and cup of tea? Perhaps they got no sleep, had a nightmare getting their toddler ready and there on time. Perhaps the last thing on earth they want to do is dance around and sing with you. That might sound harsh, but I always try to put myself in the shoes of the adult who has walked through the door with the child. The response of the adult is the key to how easily the child can engage with you.


long term projects are a good way to build relationships 

Working with families is always built into my early years projects. I always aim to deliver longer term projects, which means I can build up a relationship with the families I am working with.

I do not currently deliver fee paying sessions.

I work in stay and play sessions as part of my current project, More Tuneful Tots & Bouncin’ Bairns. This is a twenty month project funded by Youth Music. Stay and play is common to lots of Children’s Centres. These weekly sessions do what they say on the tin: adults come to ‘stay and play’ with their children. This is not nursery or crèche. The idea is that the carer comes and enjoys quality play time with their child, with other families and children. I work alongside the staff team who run these sessions. These sessions are staffed by family support workers, and early years practitioners. I am part of the team. I am there for the whole session which is usually two hours. I have tried a few different approaches.


Be part of the group

There is a lot to be gained by mixing in with all the families and children and just being part of the group. This gives you a brilliant opportunity to get to know people, the rhythm of the session, and find out about usual routines. I am careful not to become an early years practitioner here, as if I play directly with children too much I can make the parent redundant, as that is their job at stay and play. One of my main aims is always to train any staff I am working in to make better use of their own skill-set in relation to singing and music-making, so just being part of the group gives a good opportunity to observe what usually happens at song-time. I have found out more about the impact of our music project in Hexham, Sing and Play by talking informally to parents than through any other means.


make the most of free choice timeearly years music session outdoors

Set yourself up as a free choice activity in a specific area. This requires you to have some staff support, as it can be full on! I put out the ‘music cloth’ and lay out a selection of instruments and interesting props and see who comes along. I ensure that children do not come along unsupervised, as this undermines the whole concept of stay and play. I need staff on board with this, as once small children are sat in the middle of the cloth playing music, I cannot leave the space to go find their stepmam.

I use this as an opportunity to talk to the adults about music in the child’s wider life.  I try to ask questions in an accessible way. This is important to me. It was Susan Young at a recent training event, who talked about how easily a music leader can undermine a parent in their seeming ‘expertise’, and make a parent feel they should not sing with their child as they have ‘no training’. This horrified me, and it has stayed with me ever since. Whatever a parent sounds like, it is more important that they sing with their child, than I do.

This informal time is an excellent time to gather songs. I keep a recorder with me, so if a parent comes along with a brilliant new song they sing with their little one, I can ask if I can record it and stick it onto our website. I am hoping that next week I am going to learn some Italian and Malaysian songs from a Malaysian mother, who has a two years old with her Italian partner. The child is learning to talk in three different languages.

I choose which bits of my early years kit are out to explore. It might just be a bag of finger puppets, or it might be a range of different props and stimulus. It is likely I will have with me: instruments, my djembe drum, my ukulele (a cheap one which I don’t mind the children playing and exploring), Beat Baby, my puppet Steph, voiles to play peekaboo games. I would never have all of this out at once. I’m careful where I position myself, and make sure the kit which is not out is boxed in behind me so children can’t just help themselves to everything. I encourage free exploration of whatever is out, and try to ensure that the adult is engaged too. This is a fine line, as there are different reasons why a parent might choose to sit and watch rather than join in. They might be encouraging independence in a safe environment, they might be shy, bored, or totally disengaged and switched off. Talking to them and finding out about families before the session helps me to gauge which it is.  There’s nothing wrong in having a chat with grandma about her morning or week, if it means she is more likely to sing a song with her grandson and me in five minutes’ time.


Song-time is essentialchild playing maracas

I try to make this a feature of any stay and play I am working in. This can be anywhere from 15- 45 minutes depending on the group. I make sure that I am working with staff rather than on my own here, and there is an onus on staff training. 

I would usually have planned with staff which areas they feel they need new ideas in and make sure I demonstrate these. I try where possible to co-lead song time rather than taking over, as that can strip practitioners of confidence in their own ability to lead it on their own. I make sure I cover a range of songs, including some ‘favourites’ which children and adults can call out. I make sure I sing slowly, with plenty of repetition at an appropriate pitch. You'd be surprised how slowly you should be singing to enable much younger children to actually join in. See the video clip below for an example...




There are always action songs which incorporate movements for 0-5 year olds, including lots of movement on the floor where younger children need to be. It might go something like this:

  • Hello song with Makaton signing of children’s name (dependent on group size)

  • Action song/s

  • Favourites

  • Ring game/scrunchy/lycra

  • Babies’ song – peekaboo/bouncer

  • Play flute or djembe drum for families to listen to and dance to

  • Lullaby

  • Goodbye song


how to deal with chatting adults

A challenge can be adults chatting to each other when you are leading a song time. There is not one simple answer. Adults chatting throughout song time does makes it far harder for the children to join in, and also much harder for the music leader, so I think it needs to be discouraged. Sometimes, giving the musical and visual cues you would give to children like singing ‘are you listening?’ or crouching down and whispering ‘ssssssh’ can help, but you might get ignored. I usually just come out and ask people not to talk during song time. Do this at the start, and explain that it makes it far harder for the children to join in if adults are talking. Another reason I give is that I cannot shout over them talking as I lose my voice, and it’s how I make my living so I can’t afford to. This seems better to me than being like their school teacher and telling them off for chatting, when sometimes the chat it is about the music or song, and who am I to judge? This might be one of the only times in a week they get to socialise with other adults. It’s such a tricky one to judge. I ask the practitioners what they usually do and take advice from anyone out there with tips. Got any for me?


your website can engage families

This has become an integral part of my Youth Music projects, and is an excellent tool to allow children to share with the wider family. The joy of our website is that it enables us to share video footage of the children taking part in quality musical activity with those family members who are unable to attend our sessions. The website is a great way to share with the families what we have been up to while they are at work or away from their child. Parents and practitioners have fed back that they love this website, find it very easy to navigate and find what they need. I’d like to know what you think of it too. 

Stringent safe guarding policies are required here, and you must ensure you have the consent of the legal guardian before you post any photos or video of children onto the internet. The Youth Music Network has further advice on obtaining permissions for photos or videos. I put all songs onto this website as I teach them to practitioners and families. I use WordPress, have an excellent web designer, and it’s easy-peasy to use otherwise I couldn’t do it. 


Link up with external agencies

When I worked in Hexham Children’s Centre stay and play as part of 20,000 Voices Sing and Play project, the centre linked in with external partners. As part of this project, we visited the local care home for elders and did our song time for the residents, who loved it. It may have been challenging for me leading songs when one of the residents started to sing at the top of her voice, (a totally different song), and then when invited to share would stop dead, but it was lovely to see her singing and loving it so much. The children have since been again, and did not want to leave. As some of the parents pointed out, this intergenerational work encourages all children to have respect for their elders form an early age.  We also visited Hexham Abbey and sang in the crypt and pulpit. This was magical.

Finally, don’t be afraid to show off your own skills. I play my flute for families, and take the djembe in for them to dance along to.


Looking for further inspiration?young child looking at ukelele

Are you looking for more inspiration for your work in the early years? Why don’t you join Musical Eyes, the new network I am setting up? It is all about connecting people who use music in the early years and celebrating effective practice wherever it is found. We are based in the north east, but as the website is the central resource, so there’s a lot to be gained from our online community.


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Wendy Maycraft's picture

Kate, thanks so much for this inspiring article. How refreshing to to find someone down to earth who thinks that there are "no rules" in early years music.

I deliver both free and fee-paying sessions in the north west, usually with parents present. I identify strongly with your comments about the importance of engaging with parents/carers, and recognising the challenges they face. Like you, I make an effort to engage with and get to know the Mums and grandparents who regularly attend my sessions - after all, the children can't come without them and if adults don't feel relaxed and comfortable they're not going to want to return. We forget how intimidating it can be for a new young Mum, unused to singing, to walk into a music session with her little one. A relaxed and informal atmosphere is I think key to engaging adults in early years music and this is what I try to create. I have had feedback (unsolicited!) from Mums about more formal sessions where they have felt intimidated by the structure and formality, and have also felt inadequate because they have not been able to make their children sit still or otherwise behave as expected.

We sometimes forget in the effort to measure/evaluate/justify our outcomes and funding that music should be joyful and FUN, for children and parents alike, and that enthusiasm and empathy are in fact more important than formal training and structure in the early years arena.

Thanks for the tips about chatting adults, always a challenge. We try to include social time in our sessions - as you say, it may be the only chance Mums get to see other adults all week. I will certainly be joining your new network. Thanks again!

Kate_MB's picture

Wendy, thank you so much for taking the time to comment on this post. You are so right about the atmosphere too, I forgot to put that in. Good point, well made! The adults are the only reason the children are there aren't they? So we have to make sure they are as relaxed, happy and comfortable as possible. A big HOORAY to keeping fun at the centre of the experience too. Empathy is such an important skill isn't it? I would suggest it is as important when working in a nursery with a staff team too, as training them to make better use of their own musical skills requires sensitivity and tact, as they may feel very insecure about singing and music. Including social time in a structured session is a great idea, as it's needed in a busy day as a parent isn't it? I'm delighted you're going to join our network. What is your email address? Can I add you to our mailing list? We'll be sending information out about how to sign up after our launch event tomorrow. Where are you based? Delighted to be in contact with a like-minded colleague :) Kate

Simon Glenister's picture

Hi this isn't my area at all, I tend to be work with those with chaotic backgrounds, mental health issues etc but I just wanted to say what a great informative blog post with lots that is relevant to anyone using music as their mode of work, Thank you

Kate_MB's picture

Simon, thanks very much for taking the time to comment, especially if this is not your direct line of work. You never know til you post it out there whether a blog is relevant, interesting, or inspiring for anyone else do you? I always appreciate people taking time to give some feed back. What is your area of work? I'm pleased you think that others not working in early years can still take relevant info from this blog. :)

Simon Glenister's picture

Yes it's nice when people are motivated by something enough to comment. You mentioned in your article about involving those around the child using your website. We also take this approach and find it useful on a number of levels. You might find something of interest in this blog post about our approach

Kate_MB's picture

Thanks Simon, I'll certainly take a look at your blog. I am launching a new network today so it might not be today! Good to be in contact :)

Kate_MB's picture

Simon, when I put that link into the address bar, your blog doesn't come up, how can I find it? Thanks, Kate :)

Simon Glenister's picture

sorry Kate - try this
Look for the blog article or you can find the piece on blogging about 6 posts down here

Kate_MB's picture

Thanks Simon, I will give that a go and see if I have more luck. :)

Wendy Maycraft's picture

Hi Kate, hope the launch went well! I'm based in Bolton, Lancs, and my email address is Yes, please add me to your mailing list.
Kind regards, Wendy

Kate_MB's picture

Hiya Wendy,

The launch event went really well, thanks for asking. You can sign up here now, if you would like to join our network: There is lots to be gained from membership even though you are not based in the north east, as the website is going to be the central resource and there is already some great content on there. I have added you to the mailing list.

Stay in touch,

Darren Poyzer's picture

Excellent launch event Kate, really enjoyed and appreciated Sandra Kerr, and the website looks really exciting short-term and hopefully long-term. All good things, Darren :-)

Kate_MB's picture

It was great to see you there Darren! Sandra was excellent wasn't she, I have had lots of good feedback about her presentation. How was your Musical Inclusion Launch on Friday? Good things backatcha :)

Darren Poyzer's picture

it was most excellent thanks, a sign of good things for North East Musical Inclusion going forwards :-)

Dougie Lonie's picture

Hi Kate. Great blog and some really useful tips. I think you are right that it's important to have lots of different ways to engage children and parents who will all have different interests and inspirations! I also agree with Wendy in her previous comment that empathy, enjoyment and musicality are the most important outcomes in any early years (and most non-early years) music making. It's just that there are other things that music making does for the children, families, pratitioners and settings that I think we need to communicate to ensure that practice is valued and supported from as many sources as possible.

We have a really interesting new piece of research coming out in January - of which there will be much more detail then. However, I was chatting to the lead researcher yesterday and we had a long discussion about how the musical identities (i.e. tastes, preferences, practices) of the parents can have a huge influence on how music is 'done' in the home (an anecdotal example is my 4 year old niece's love of fleetwood mac when she comes to visit!). I wondered if anyone has any thoughts on that or have seen benefits in using songs and music that are the parents' faves?

Would be interested in people's thoughts...