Spotlighting Sightlines' work on children's musicality

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    Wednesday, 16 September, 2015 - 16:02

Enabling young children to become competent, enthused and empowered to use music as a form of expression! Click on the dots to find out more about the work of Sightlines Initiative.


This page is part of a resource collection: Tuning in to children’s musicality - nurturing children’s ideas

Waypointwaypoint/introducing-drama-sound-projectIntroducing the Drama of Sound project.97.4239.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/starting-childrens-ideasStarting with children's ideas145.4336.4""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/adults-and-children-learning-together-dialogueAdults and children learning together in dialogue238.4402.2""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/revisiting-sharing-and-growing-childrens-ideasRevisiting, sharing and growing children's ideas342.4465.4""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/exploring-childrens-musical-expressionExploring children's musical expression415.4554.0""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/ripples-and-waves-impacts-and-outcomes-sightlines-drama-sound-projectRipples and waves - the impacts and outcomes of Sightlines' Drama of Sound project440.4636.6""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/about-sightlines-initiativeAbout Sightlines Initiative167.4787.4""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/about-sightlines-initiativeAbout Sightlines Initiative167.4787.4""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/additional-learning-materialsAdditional Learning Materials559.4757.6""#0000002
Waypointwaypoint/additional-learning-materialsAdditional Learning Materials559.4757.6""#0000002

Enabling young children to become competent, enthused and empowered to use music as a form of expression! Click on the dots to find out more about the work of Sightlines Initiative.


This page is part of a resource collection: Tuning in to children’s musicality - nurturing children’s ideas

Through the Spotlighting process, Youth Music has been supporting organisations, such as the Sightlines Initiative, to document and capture, to evaluate, and then to communicate their practice and enable other people to do it.

Sightlines' Drama of Sound programme explored musicality as an expressive language in early childhood education. Enabling young children to become competent, enthused and empowered to use music as a way of expressing their ideas and communicating with one another. Through working closely with educators in the settings and providing wider CPD opportunities in the North East, Sightlines aimed to develop a culture of reflective, creative practice in early years music education across the region.

Click here for a text version of this visualisation






Introducing the Drama of Sound project.



See below for a transcript of this film


Colwyn Trevarthen, Professor of Child Psychology, University of Edinburgh:
The educational reformists, they talked about the teacher learning from the child. Well, you know what Comenius says is, “All will act well one if acts reasonably as with a reasonable creature”. Well I want to substitute in there, “All will go well if one acts playfully with a playful creature, or emotionally with an emotional creature, or cleverly with a clever creature”. That’s what it is. Creative things have to be responded to creatively.

Robin Duckett, Sightlines Initiative:
What we’re trying to do in these projects is to develop systems which enable us to develop a creative approach. Working together as teams of educators in school, and together when outsiders, in this case musicians, come in to collaborate, in listening to and working with children’s ideas.

In this film, we’ll introduce some key ideas underpinning the work, and explore ways of beginning a creative project. We’ll examine ways of working with children’s ideas and how the children and adults learn in dialogue with each other. We will show how the various ideas were revisited, and how they grew as the projects developed.
We will explore how children can use music to express themselves, and reflect on our learning in the project.

Robin Duckett:
In this set of projects, which have been in development, in exploration for more than two years now, our focus has been around musicality. We wanted to explore how we could better offer the concept of music, of listening, of aural capacities, within the early years, within the learning environment. We’re working first of all on the principle that this working together is to support an educational practice which maximises the potential for children to explore, to make enquiries, to exchange their ideas with one another and to express them. So, for us, musicality is part of the possible languages of expression that we as human beings, children, have as a potential to play with.

This project, funded by Youth Music, took place in three settings in ex-mining villages and towns in the north east of England. They were Trimdon Grange Infant and Nursery School, Rosemary Lane Nursery School and Houghton Community Nursery School. During each project, two musicians came to work in the setting for half a day per week, for at least a term. They worked alongside two of the nursery staff and with the same children each week. A mentor from Sightlines Initiative visited each project periodically to offer different perspectives and help unpick the various possibilities.

Starting with children's ideas



See below for a transcript of this film

Where to start?

Beginnings can be a time of excitement and optimism, but also of uncertainty and anxiety. How do we get started? What might happen? In these projects the adults worked together to create their own research questions. These questions, informed by the children’s own ideas and interests, formed the basis of the project work. Sometimes the questions were decided on before the project started. Sometimes they emerged through observing children’s play, group discussions with the children and the reflections of the adults. The educators at Trimdon asked, “How can we support children to develop their inventive singing?”. The research focus at Rosemary Lane was, “How do children respond to live music?” And at Houghton the adults asked, “How can we work with children’s narrative ideas as the basis for exploring musical expression?” In all three projects we were interested in developing children’s imagination and emotional engagement.

Catherine Reding:
My name is Cath. I was one of the musicians at Houghton Nursery School

Richard Trethewey:
And I’m Richard. I was the other musician working at Houghton.

Catherine Reding:
We began the project by working together with the staff in the nursery, observing children’s play. We wanted to really take a step back at the beginning so that we could learn more about the children before taking our own ideas to them. Sometimes it’s very easy to rush in with ideas at the beginning of a project and not see what’s already there and what the children are already doing. So, together with the staff, we worked in the nursery just quietly observing children’s play. We were especially looking out for ways that children moved, the way that they used their voices in a musical way.

Here is some of what we observed and recorded during our first week in nursery.
We noticed the girls’ dance-like movements, how they imitated one another and the singing quality to their voices.

film of observations

While observing the girls, we noticed that someone else was singing. At first, we weren’t sure where the singing was coming from…

film showing audio then visual of Jamie singing

Jamie was making sounds as he drew and rubbed out. His voice seemed to match the movements he was making. We didn’t think Jamie was aware of his singing. Had we not been listening out for it, we might not have noticed it either.

film of Jamie singing and drawing

Jamie sang a rain song as he drew. We noticed how he changed the pitch of his voice as he sang, “Falling, falling, falling, raining and raining and raining”.

film of Jamie’s rain song

Following on from our observations, we reflected on what we had seen. We were interested to find out more about how the children sang while going about daily activities. We had noticed various children in the nursery doing this, and decided to gather these particular children together the following week. Inspired by Jamie’s singing while drawing, we provided the group with a large sheet of paper and pastels. We explained to the group that they could experiment with using the pastels however they wanted to. We took the opportunity to step back and observe how the children moved and sang as they drew.

film of observations taken during the second week, of children drawing

The educators and musicians reflected on what they had observed.

Karen Lambton, educator:
It almost gives you permission to actually stand back more, and observe before you are tempted to… “I need to do something!”. So to give yourself the time. And we’ve said this before, and we never do, but it actually came home to me that actually yes, you do need to stand right back and watch, and see what’s happening.

Jamie Liddle, educator:
When I was watching them I was gobsmacked, just at the things that they were doing that I’ve never noticed before. One of the little boys started drawing. He was singing along to it, and then the other little boy joined in with him and they were, like, mirroring each other. I was gobsmacked at it. Very impressed!

Karen Lambton:
It’s almost like taking turns in conversation, with a musical element to it… and not having to be taught that. It’s learnt. They’ve learnt it. Is it nurture or nature?

Jamie Liddle:
I wouldn’t have been interested… not that I wasn’t interested! I didn’t notice it before - I would have wanted to know what their picture was about, whereas it was the opposite.

Adults and children learning together in dialogue



See below for a transcript of this film

Learning in Dialogue

Ideas can emerge in lots of different ways. In Houghton, the drawing the children had created inspired a group story, which was then used as the basis for exploring music and dance. In Trimdon the staff explored different contexts for developing children’s creative singing. In Rosemary Lane children explored ways of moving to live music. At first the staff provided lots of props for children to work with such as scarves, balls and ramps.

film of children dancing with scarves

During the session there was a thought that the children’s attention was more drawn to the materials rather than to the music. So we decided to put all the stuff away. We played the djembe in response to the movements children were making. Watch how carefully the children move, and how they tune in to the rhythms of the music.

film of children dancing to the djembe

Efe: I was doing breakdancing.

Jill, educator: Breakdancing? I didn’t know you could do that, Efe! Well, what do you do? How do you do that, then?

Efe: Um, you just, um, like um, roly polies. You just like do spinning round but you just spin around and break dancing.

Jill: Spinning and roly polies and breakdancing, has anyone else been able to do breakdancing or is it just you?

Efe: Just me!

Jill: Just you.

In the weeks that followed we continued with this simple approach. We noticed how children’s ideas would grow and spread within the group. Here, the ideas of spinning and twirling are shared in a group of three girls. Watch how they interact as a group. They are just as interested in relating to one another as they are in the idea of spinning.

film of three girls spinning and twirling

Colwyn Trevarthen:
It’s very important to see that imitation is always dialogic. That means it’s always an initiative and it’s not just a reception. But the point is, the way that they look at each other. It’s obvious that they’re not taking on something - they’re doing something as a gift to return. And that’s exactly what Emese Nagy says about newborn imitation. It’s an initiative. You see, she was the person, you remember, who wasn’t satisfied with just showing that the newborn baby can imitate - after that she waited. The baby repeated to get her to imitate. And she discovered that - nobody else had thought of it. So she said, they’re not imitating to gain something, they’re imitating to set up a dialogue. So always, imitation is reflective like that. And I think that’s hugely important for teachers to know. Because they think that children learn by imitation. They don’t learn by imitation - they gain something they think they can give back to you. So they become a companion with you through imitation.

film of Allison Worthington and Poppy dancing and Kate Maines Beasley playing the djembe

There was a sense that the children and adults had got to know each other in a new way. They had become experts in listening and responding to one another using music and movement. As the project progressed the staff decided to give the children the chance to create their own music for dancing to. This would encourage even greater listening between the children.

film of Allison introducing the children to playing the drum

Watch and listen to how the children explored playing the djembe in different ways…

film of children playing the djembe while others dance

…and how a dialogue is set up between the musician and the dancers.

continuation of film clip

Revisiting, sharing and growing children's ideas

See below for a transript of this film

Revisiting, sharing and growing

Robin Duckett:
What’s crucial for us in our building up of pedagogy, of ways of being in education, is to think about children as people who are learning together. An environment in which ideas are created, in which ideas are supported. These ideas exist in the minds and the actions, the explorations, of particular children. So we need to begin to think about clusters or natural groups of children who are working together on particular ideas, being supported by the teachers, who are challenging the children to go back, revisit their ideas, delve into them, dig deeper into them.

In Houghton the adults used documentation such as photos, video and audio recordings to revisit the children’s ideas. This process encouraged greater reflection amongst the children. Here, they are looking back on video of themselves dancing - to music they had created to go with part of the story.

film of part of the children’s story, and the children watching the same clip

Layla had an idea for the next part of the story.

film of Layla’s story idea

While working with the group over a few weeks we observed a growing interest in fierceness. We gave the children further opportunities to explore fierce movements, sounds and music.

film of fierce sound and movement play

The children used the autoharp and the drum to create music to represent the lion, which we added to go with their story and pictures.
Here is a short extract from the children’s story. The whole story can be found in the appendix.

film of extract from the children’s story

The adults also form a learning group, with each person bringing their own expertise and point of view. Regular meetings together to discuss observations and ideas are important to forming a shared understanding of the process.

Amy Henderson, musician:
I personally felt they were a lot more engaged from the start, compared from last week. I felt like when I played the accordion they started slow. They were all kind of looking and moving slow and then when I started to speed it up they were all kind of bouncing about a bit more. And then, when you played the flute they did the same. They were kind of less and then they started to engage in it more. I think they were more focussed.

Allison Worthington:
Efe was saying, “This sounds like ghost music”, when you first started playing the accordion and you were really moving slowly. He said, “This is like real ghost music!” And I said, “How would you move if you were a ghost?” He started moving around with Ben then.

Gill Parker, Head Teacher, Rosemary Lane Nursery:
I think with having this extra time, support time for the staff and Kate to get together, to really unpick the real meaning of it, I think that’s the important thing.

Allison Worthington:
We really scheduled our morning so we made sure we had time, but also had the flexibility so if what the children worked over a little bit we had that time to keep following it on. But to make sure we did reflect at the end of the session.

Kate Maines Beasely, musician:
I think all three of us said last time we met that we don’t think we’d have had this project that we’ve had without that time, because we wouldn’t have noticed anything, we wouldn’t have time to …

Gill Parker:
… bounce ideas off each other, really.

Kate Maines Beasley:
That’s it.

Allison Worthington:
… and know how we were going to follow it up.

Kate Maines Beasley:
That’s it.

Tracey Merritt, educator, Trimdon Grange School:
Not just being inside yourself, but working together with other adults really, really helps. Well, it does me. I’ve always felt like that.

Alison Pearce, educator, Trimdon Grange School:
You do go home and you start to think about it, sort of in isolation but you’re thinking, this happened today, and it’s that time to reflect yourself as well as those chances to discuss in dialogue what is actually going on.

Catherine Worton, Head Teacher, Trimdon Grange School:
I think it helps you as practitioners to realise just how individual children are, when you’re really looking closely at a small group for a small time. You recognise the qualities that children have, the learning styles that they have, and you help to model for them the power of working together and the power of sharing ideas in a way that you don’t if you spread yourself thinner over a larger group. So you really get to model for children the importance of the contributions that individuals can make within a common project or a common exploration.

Catherine Reding:
And do you think that, even for children that haven’t been involved in the small group project, can you see that there might be benefits for those other children that weren’t in that group?

Catherine Worton:
Well, I think there’s an opportunity for them to see a model of other children working together. It become a very glamorous thing to do, to be in the group that’s doing the project, so it becomes desirable to do something that’s collaborative, desirable to do something that’s long-term, desirable to do something that involves conversations, that involves blind alleys, that involves periods of frustration and periods of great success. So I think other children can learn by looking from the outside. And we know that all children are going to get the chance to be involved in these kinds of projects in some form, so they can learn form each other’s experiences.

Ongoing dialogue with parents enabled them to see their children in a new light. The educators learnt more about the children’s home interests, and how these were coming into the work.

film of parent and child dancing together

Catherine Worton:
I think it becomes much more a culture of discussion, a culture of dialogue, a culture of considering multiple outcomes or multiple angles, if you like, on particular situations or particular kinds of learning. And it’s quite a steep learning curve to come to that level of understanding. It’s not always a very comfortable place to be either, but when it works well it can be a much more profound kind of experience for practitioners and for children as well.

Exploring children's musical expression



See below for a transcript of this film

Musical expression

Across all three projects we experimented with tools for enabling musical expression, various contexts, and mixtures of complimentary media such as clay and drawing.
The more ways children have of expressing themselves, the deeper an understanding they can reach. We chose instruments with a variety of sounds and playing techniques, rather than just the traditional school percussion instruments. We gave the children lots of time to explore the instruments in their own way, rather than showing them exactly what to do. This led to greater curiosity, engagement and invention.

film of Niamh exploring the chime bars, watched by the adults and the other children

Erin brought her harmonica from home to show the group. Listen to the words she uses to describe the music she plays.

film of Erin sharing her harmonica with the group

At Trimdon Grange the adults explored ways of encouraging children’s inventive singing. They found that props such as tubes and microphones often encouraged the quieter children to participate.

film of children with tubes and microphones

The adults also experimented with different places for the children to sing in. Here, Ruby has heard a baby bird in the woods, and invents a baby bird song, accompanied by Tamsin on the ukulele.

film of Ruby’s song

The adults experimented with combining different media, to help children express themselves in new ways. In this clip Daisy is singing while Shane draws her song.

film of Shane and Daisy drawing and singing

In Rosemary Lane the educators showed the children photos and video of themselves dancing, and provided them with clay so they could make models of themselves.

film of children with clay models

In Houghton the children drew the sounds of the animals that appeared in the story.

Ripples and waves - the impacts and outcomes of Sightlines' Drama of Sound project



See below for a transcript of this film

Ripples and Waves

Gwyneth Lamb, Regional Executive Officer, Youth Music:
As the regional officer for Youth Music I’ve been absolutely delighted to be able to work with Sightlines on this project. Youth Music is about young people, it’s about music-making, but most of all it’s about children and young people discovering themselves and fulfilling their potential through music. And so that’s where Sightlines’ approach and ideas, and Youth Music’s approach and ideas have really come together in a very fruitful partnership. I hope that from this people will see that children are already full. They are full of ideas, they’re full of possibility, they’re full of ability. And this is a way in which music can help them to bring all those ideas out and develop. And to me it’s what education is really about. “Education”, the Latin root is “educare”: to lead out, not to fill up. The potential is already there. And I think when musicans go into a setting sometimes they very often feel that they have to be seen to be doing, they have to justify their position, the amount they’re being paid and the time and the space they’re taking up. And actually what they need to do is be there to support the children and enable them to bring all these wonderful ideas out.

Catherine Worton:
I think that our involvement in these projects has caused us to re-examine the relationship between teaching and learning, and sometimes redefine teaching and learning. So we move away from the model where learning follows teaching into more of a model where we learn about the way that children learn, and that better informs the way we can teach them. I think staff are more relaxed in their observations, I think they’ve learnt to wait a little bit longer to see what the richest veins of enquiry might be. They are less scared of specific musical experiences. I think they’ve realised they have more in common with all learning experiences than they do with technical musical skills. So staff are more willing to look for musical aspects to learning or music as a language of expression. They’re a bit more confident in thinking how they might take that forward, and they enjoy being with children making sounds, they enjoy being with children exploring sounds, which was something that wasn’t evident in our practice before.

Gwyneth Lamb:
What I think we’re working towards is both early years educators and musicians seeing the potential of music: that it can do more than help children learn to count, help children develop a sense of rhythm, help them understand high and low, be there to structure the day. Yes, it can do those things, but music can also do an awful lot more, and I think that the projects we’ve seen here demonstrate some of what that more can be. So it’s not to say that a more conventional approach is wrong in any way, but perhaps it’s a little restricted, and there is a whole world of possibilities to be explored. And I well remember the conversation I had with Cath, the head at Trimdon, very early on in these developments, where she was saying that in many ways they felt that in other aspects of work at the school they felt that they’d made that step, they’d started to explore those possibilities. But they didn’t know how to do it in music, and I think that’s probably true for many early years educators: that they feel music has to be something where you’ve got to be able to play an instrument. You’ve got to have the confidence to sing. And people feel restricted by that. Whereas what this shows is it’s about sound, it’s about response. It’s an element of human communication, and it’s about exploring that with the children and seeing where it takes you.

End credits

Staff, children and parents at Houghton Community Nursery School
Rosemary Lane Nursery School
Trimdon Grange Infant and Nursery School

Kate Maines Beasley
Catherine Reding
Isla Hughes
Amy Henderson
Richard Trethewey
Yandri Enang

Robin Duckett and Catherine Reding

Visual and audio documentation by all project members

Film-maker, Editor and Scriptwriter
Catherine Reding

Consultant Editors
Robin Duckett and Gwyneth Lamb

Richard Trethewey and Catherine Reding

Graphic Design
Paul Matson

Thanks to
Colwyn Trevarthen, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychology University of Edinburgh
Gwyneth Lamb, Youth Music Regional Executive Officer North East, for ongoing advice and support

Part of the Youth Music national spotlighting programme 2011

About Sightlines Initiative

Sightlines Initiative was formed in 1997 as an independent early years professional development initiative. We support initiatives and projects aimed at developing and demonstrating reflective and creative practice in UK early childhood education.

Sightlines Initiative recognise children as naturally competent, capable and inquisitive learners, and advocate education as the practice of developing an environment of engagement and enquiry.

Sightlines works in three main areas:
Locally: We develop and support long term creative thinking in action research projects with artists, educators and children in early years settings. We work closely with several local authorities in North East England in providing key professional development opportunities in the field of creative, reflective educational practice.

Nationally: We host the ReFocus Network. This is a nationwide learning community of over 1000 members connecting creative reflective practice and projects and influencing policy development in the UK. Sightlines organises continuous professional development opportunities for members and hosts an on-line documentation and project archive.

Internationally: We are the UK reference point for Reggio Children facilitating the opportunity to learn from the Reggio experience. In 2006 Reggio Children established the Reggio Children International Network and Sightlines is a founding member of this network of more than 20 countries. Since 1999 Sightlines has organised annual study visits to Reggio Emilia and has organised the hosting of exhibitions from Reggio in the UK. We also organise exchange and study groups with other International Reggio Network Member Organisations.

Projects of ours are referenced in a number of government publications as giving exemplars of innovative, creative practice. In 2008 The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority helped to fund group analysis of project experiences in preparation for the publication ‘Adventuring in Early Childhood Education’. Schools whose practice we have encouraged have frequently received outstanding commendations from OFSTED.

In ‘The Drama of Sound’ work, we engaged in ongoing discourse with Colwyn Trevarthen at the Human Communication Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, on reflective practice in music-in-education, and with the music department in Newcastle University. Colwyn has presented at various of our past conferences. The project seminars are run in collaboration with the University of Newcastle Masters in Music and Education degree.

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