by Author Sabina Noble

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The Saplings programme at Music Treehouse: 2 years of Interactive Music Making

The Music Treehouse programme at HMDT Music’s Saturday Programme, offers younger disabled children access to high quality interactive music making, boosting social skills and confidence, and offering pathways to learning through songs and participatory musical activities.

Saplings is the Primary and pre-school extension of HMDT Music’s Music Treehouse. The sessions with the Saplings students, many of whom have autistic spectrum disorders along with other disabilities, are creative, fun, and engaging. We work with children with a huge range of needs, and we try to cater for the individual’s development and learning, as well as fostering a strong and creative group dynamic. Our goals are for the students to develop in confidence so that they want to join in, to feel comfortable to be with other children and workshop leaders, and to thrive in a musical environment, which can be stimulating as well as calming.


Creating a safe environment is key to the success of the course and the sessions. With play mats in the middle of the space, and instruments and props and puppets all around, the children enter the space confident that the workshop will be safe and enjoyable. We also try to have activities that are repeated each week, with clear structures, never staying too long on one exercise. Autistic children in particular welcome clear structures, and timelines.


We try to always engage with the students physically, warming up bodies as well as voices, so that we are engaging with bodies, voices and minds in the most holistic way possible.


The heart of the sessions are the songs that are made specifically for the students’ needs. They are participatory so the ones with limited speech can join in in their own ways, whether it is vocalisation, clapping or actions. Often the songs have stories based on animals, and we make liberal use of puppets to engage further with the students.

Self-expression and rhythm

Rhythm and percussion is another key element of the course and we use percussion liberally, encouraging children to lead whenever possible. We set up clear rhythmic goals, so everyone gains confidence by making music together, and then let individuals take charge through techniques of call and response.

Drama and design

All the children love the elements of drama that we bring to the work, and engage especially strongly when there are elements of story – climbing mountains, meeting monsters, feeding the dog and so on. We also introduce design into the workshops, often with the use of shadow screes that are particularly productive creatively, as the shapes that the students make are validated through the impact of the shadows.


Almost all of our students love thee free expression that dance offers, and the liberation it can bring. It gives access to the rhythm inside them, and the chance to interact freely with the other members of the group.


Many of our students have very limited speech, and singing and repetition really encourages them to vocalise, and to join in. We use numbers quite often in song, and often though words can be hard numbers are relatively easy, Music seems to be a gateway to verbal articulation.

Social interaction

Many parents and carers have noted that their children thrive in the social dynamic that we establish, with the leaders and students playing freely together in a creative environment. There is never is a sense that there is a right and wrong way of doing things, and by staying with other children on the mats throughout the session can be a wonderful achievement.

Home listening – Online learning

Since going into lockdown, Music Treehouse has moved it’s offer online. Students have continued to have live sessions with myself, with songs individually tailored to them. All of the songs along with rhythm activities are recorded on film, and many students have found the participatory aspects of this material very rewarding. For the first time students have had access to resources throughout the week at times that are convenient to them, and this has shown in student development during the live sessions. Some students have learnt the words and melodies of the songs using these recordings, and though the live sessions over the last 4 months has been a challenge, there are particular rewards to be found through the intimacy of online workshops, and through the learning potential of online content.

Tim Yealland MBE

Music Treehouse Saplings Workshop Leader