by Author Ali Harmer

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When practice meets theory: The social benefits of very young children making music together

Move Groove Improve: A research project to determine whether additional music input can help to  “close the attainment gap” for children identified at two years old of being at risk of being left behind their more affluent or mainstream peers

Duration/Location: Two years, delivered by Ali Harmer through The Music Works. Based in two Children's Centres in the South West of England.

Number of children: About thirty six children from age two when they start attending fifteen hours a week, to shortly before they start school aged four.

Evaluation: Notebook recording all observable musical behaviours, The Sounds of Intent scale, EYFS data

This Post: Remarkable co-operation amongst three-year olds after a shared song with claves (clicksticks)

Music making and pro-social behaviour in practice

One of the many musical activities last week in “big class” involved fourteen children aged three years old, many of whom I’d worked with for about six months, since they were two. I led the activity which involved everyone holding a pair or claves, clicking them together and singing a song with few words. We soon fell into an agreed groove, all clicking together. During the song I modelled ideas of what to do with the sticks (click them, roll them, rub them, use them as bunny ears, a hammer,  back scratchers, etc) all in time to the tune and praised the children by name for their innovative ideas which we incorporated into the song. This song progressed for about seven minutes when I segued into “The Sticks on the Bus” which required yet more ideas from the children.

Finally I sang a song whilst the sticks were placed back in the bag and handed the class back to the practitioner who allocated tables or floor area with toys already laid out. There were salt trays for pattern-drawing, a large box of Lego and a box of wooden train tracks and engines on the floor. The children settled into their play.

Fifteen minutes later, the Lead Practitioner said. “That’s amazing! Everyone is so calm and focused. Usually by now there would have been disagreements about sharing and lots of minor arguments. There’s been nothing like that. Everybody’s busy playing!” I had to agree, I’d seen sharing, imaginative Lego models being built and “eaten” by a dinosaur, cooperation when fallen Lego had to be retrieved and focused, child-led play. I also noted lots of child-initiated song as the children played with the Lego.  “May we borrow the sticks this week?” asked the Practitioner. “We’re going to try that stick song again!

Music making and pro-social behaviour in theory

Tomasello, Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and his team of researchers conducted a range of experiments with young children to see if music making promoted pro-social behaviours. In one (Kirschner and Tomasello, 2010) he found that children participating in a singing game were measurably more helpful to each other afterwards. He writes about how children become more sociable after a shared, well-supported, co-operative activity like music-making. Moving and singing together in a challenging activity has a shared intentionality that encourages both the individual and the group to work together enabling emotions, experiences, ideas and activities to be shared.

Returning to practice:

Back at our project, we could not put a figure on how much more co-operative the children were in their play after the sticks song, but the difference was noticeable to professionals who knew the children well. These same professionals will sing that song again in the coming week and will report their impressions to me.

Next week I’ll adapt and extend that song again, or maybe I’ll use shaky eggs, or scarves. We will move together, sing together and will see if the magic, I mean music, works again. In the near future we will process both the EYFS data for each tracked child and the Sounds of Intent data. I am confident that this will offer further and  more measured evidence that active music making is enjoyable and has some extremely useful positive side-effects.