Sunday, October 26, 2014

Connecting the dots between language and music development

What is this child doing?

One of our mothers came in to share her love of the piano with our two small groups. She presented both the piano, and piano music, and explained that, like letters forming sentences, musical notes form musical sentences. The children were in awe of this phenomenon--making music by reading it in print, just like reading words on a page.

I made manuscript paper for activity time. As anyone in early childhood knows, children this age have no inhibitions about trying something without knowing how! So they imitated how music looked to them (see the paper in the picture) and then "played" their compositions. We attempted to record an ensemble of three playing their compositions, and moved to the hallway because of the background noise. A girl said, "We need a quiet place to do this! It's too noisy". In the hallway we recorded the music that each child "wrote". They were very satisfied with the experiment.

What does this have to do with language and music? Let's go back to an earlier developmental period. When a baby begins using one object to represent another in play (block for a phone) s/he is demonstrating that s/he understands that one object can symbolize another that isn't present. That other object is held in the mind of that child! The child understands that and represents it with something else. How wonderful! It is such an important shift in cognition. Later, in preschool, children begin to use symbols to represent thoughts. They draw, either scribbles that they can narrate to you (this is the bug, this is the storm...) even though you can't see what they are telling you is there (the reason we don't say, "What is it?", but "Tell me about it"). Later they can use letters to represent sound. They have caught on to the function of letters as sound bearers, keys to words that make real sentences. Again, it is such a joy to see this take place.

During this period of development young children have a developmental "window of opportunity" not only for language, but for music as well. Children learn to "think in language", but they also learn (if given multiple opportunities to listen to (not just hear) and to produce music) to think in music. They begin to hear music in their minds that they have heard before. When children learn through the adults around them that music is an important part of life, and that it can be represented on paper, just as words can, they will develop their own musical aptitude. (Yes, everyone has some musical aptitude).

So making sure that children's early years are music-rich, full of experiences that challenge them enough to offset boredom and acting out ("Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" gets old, teachers), should be a priority for all programs. Introducing children to musical manuscripts as well as instruments and sound exploration is a crucial step. Engaging the children in musical games such as pattern-making is another.

Teachers who see themselves as non-musical need to confront their fears and overcome them. This is important to the growth and development of young children. And such activities provide an unusual level of engagement that does, believe it or not, preclude horsing around. Isn't it worth it just for that reason alone?