I vividly recall, as a young mother, how amazed I was that at my son’s his first birthday he finished lines of Old King Cole with no prompting, including “merry old soul, his pipe, his bowl and his fiddler’s three.” How was it possible for a child with limited linguistic experience (and no visual reference for these details) to easily recall such obscure language? How could such a young child remember complex rhythmic and musical ideas? These questions set me on an extended search.

Over the next 10 years, I would sing and play guitar in many classrooms and eventually start my own musical preschool in a quest to understand the power of music in learning. My search for answers and understanding hasn’t finished, but it has yielded some insights on how music contributes to a child’s learning process.

One of the signs of an excellent early childhood program—those programs for children from birth to five years old—is a vibrant musical culture that is evident across the whole center. But while parents, caregivers and teachers are aware of the importance of language development in a school setting, and can recognize signs of a vibrant literary life when visiting a center, we are less able to assess the musical life of a center. Why is music important? How do we recognize a center’s musical values?

Let’s first tackle the importance of introducing music to very young children. According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Mithen, whose fascinating book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (2005) provides evidence of how music evolved in humankind, infants exhibit signs of musical acquisition even before they begin to speak. From birth, infants are set up to use and respond to musical sounds as a means to bond and communicate with mothers and other caregivers. The cooing and responsive babbling that goes on between an adult and child form the basis of an emotional connection that historically helped the species develop emotional attachments, and ultimately sustained communities across the millennia.

Mithen’s theory places musical development at the center of a young child’s life, and whether we consider it on par with language acquisition or not, it reminds us that music has incredible power to grow brains and build bonds between adults and children. Musical life is a sign of strong learning and loving between parents and children, and in an early childhood setting.

So how do we know if we are in an early childhood center where music is a core experience? There are some signs that you can look for whether the center serves infants or preschoolers.

Musical Time—The center devotes time every day in each classroom to singing, movement and children’s use of instruments. At least once a week, the whole school gathers to sing and families are invited to join.

Musical Resources—The center hires teachers who have musical skills such as playing an instrument. You will see child-sized instruments such as drums, egg shakers and sticks on a shelf in the room and also illustrated musical books in the library. The center has musical visitors, such as individuals who play instruments. Children may be exposed to musical trips as well.

Enthusiasm of Teachers—When you tour the school, depending on the time of day, you may see teachers enthusiastically sharing songs with children in small or large groups, or one on one with a child. If you ask about favorite songs, teachers or administrators should be able to list examples for you. If the songs are unfamiliar, take that as a good sign. It means that everyone is thoughtful about selections.

Musical Communication—The center regularly shares lyrics of songs with the community; you might even find lyrics on the center website. Newsletters document musical learning and expand parent knowledge about why music is important to social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Professional Development and Role Models—Centers should provide teachers with opportunities for musical growth.

In general, many early childhood settings are not currently structured to devote this level of resources to musical learning. If you visit a center that has even some of these elements you will give your child a good start on learning, and you’ll give your household the gift of a joy filled musical childhood.

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Courtney Barker

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