What’s going on when we sing together with young children?
A huge variety of powerful opportunities for growth!
Whenever you share a song with your young children, you may not actually realise just what a strong bonding experience you are all participating in. It’s not just about you singing to them, or them singing to you, it’s about the way you all meet in the middle of the experience that is so powerful!
Whether you’re a busy parent, grandparent, childminder, teacher, counsellor or health-professional, if any part of your life puts you into close contact with 3 – 7 year-olds, then read on to find out just how valuable singing together with this age group can be. It improves us from inside to out and both socially and individually.
Here are just 20 of the many ways in which you are helping to promote a sense of connection, togetherness and well-being every single time you sing with this age group.
#1 – A song is a time-bound method of interacting with others
Usually, for this age group, each song tends to be less than 3 minutes in length. That means that once the children recognise you are singing a song, they become familiar with the ‘short musical episode’ structure and on a psychological level they will acknowledge it is a time-sensitive activity so they need to attend to it immediately!
#2 ‘Live’ singing captures attention because it provides contrast to the spoken word
It is unusual for us to operate in a silent environment. There is often noise of some sort or other around us. Singing ‘cuts through’ both speech and the general aural milieu that is often surrounding young children.
In most instances, the human voice, when used in singing, innately connects to the child’s own inner musical voice and hearing a ‘live’ voice – that of a person close to them – raised in song, is such a natural way to invite children to join in with you.
#3 – A song is ‘Inclusive’ on the child’s terms
Every child is at a different stage of development, regardless of any similarities in their chronological age. They are always on their own developmental journeys.
Therefore, we adults need to observe each child’s participation in a singing activity closely.
Some children will feel confident to copy the words and rhythms of the song fluently. Others may choose to be still and maintain a listening pose. There are some who will react to the melodic outline of the song in their own ways – perhaps even mirroring the movement of the pitch (such as stretching up high as the melody tracks upwards, and bending down as the melody drops) or the rhythm (perhaps making tiny or huge movements to reflect the patterning of the music), or they may react to both aspects simultaneously.
By observing the child’s reactions, we come to learn a little more about them – not only in the ways in which they react to, and engage with, singing and music, but also as individuals within their own worlds.
#4 – Singing together fosters feelings of cohesion and togetherness
There is nothing like singing a song together to stir our emotions and make us feel as if we ‘belong’, even if it is just for a moment.
We only have to hear sports or pop fans singing together at live events to see the power that singing holds over us as a species. It has the ability to bring individuals together into a collective group.
Even young children can experience this sense of belonging by singing familiar songs together with others. They love the fact that they can participate in such a ‘shared experience’, and the psychological and social feedback they receive from doing so makes them want to replicate these feelings frequently.
#5 – Sharing a song is an invitation to ‘connect’ with the external rhythms that surround us
Leading on from the previous point, songs contain regulated, ‘spaced’ repetition.
Once a child has heard a song a few times, they begin to anticipate what is going to happen next, and they then experience a high level of enjoyment in being able to coordinate their movements and singing with others around them.
Nearly all of us benefit from participating in rhythmical actions and movements at the same time – again, just look at the joy that expressed by any big group when it is singing and moving as one.
#6 – Singing brings a group together and welcomes everyone to work in unison
By taking part in something that the group can do all together and at precisely the same time, singing encourages the group to coordinate themselves with others and to take notice of those around them.
For young children, this is often a light-bulb moment when they see that others are moving in exactly the same ways at the same time as themselves. They find it to be a wonderful discovery!
#7 – Singing promotes a sense of belonging through the eye contact and interactions we make
As you may have realised from the previous points, singing together undoubtedly promotes a sense of belonging which can be further encouraged by the facial gestures and inviting movements that you make.
Nothing says ‘join in’ quite so convincingly as singing to each individual child whilst engaging them in eye contact and smiling warmly.
#8 – Singing together creates memorable shared experiences
Learning through song, particularly through narrative songs where sequencing is an important element (more of that in our ‘Ren’ song below), the children learn to create actions in a certain order.
You only have to think of the very popular ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to see how this works. If you were to see a child making these actions, in a sequential pattern, you’d be able to identify the song they are thinking of.
These things tend to stick in our minds for life. That is the magic of repetition couched within a catchy tune. It works wonders for our memories as we learn without even realising that’s what we’re doing!
#9 – Sharing a song encourages cooperation and turn-taking
And with many turn-taking songs (For example: ‘if you’re wearing ‘red’ stand up now!’), or joint-action songs (such as; ‘row row row your boat’), the instructions contained within the words of the song require the child to cooperate and even wait for their turn.
These are such important social skills to learn and once again, the song provides a teaching opportunity for this without drawing attention or emphasis to this particular skill in any explicit way.
#10 – Singing synchronises breathing
Another aspect of the group ‘psyche’ that comes into play when singing is that we all tend to regulate our breathing so that we breathe at the same points in the song. This regulation provides the opportunity for us all to take deeper breaths which in turn slows our breathing down a little and provides the opportunity to feel calmer and more grounded.
#11 – Young children often find singing to be empowering and confidence-building
Singing – raising your voice in song – is an empowering activity.
It provides us with a connection between our internal thoughts and external actions. Just watch children at play, singing to themselves as they repeat an action or gesture, and you’ll see how they are rehearsing their newly acquired knowledge in a non-threatening, almost reflective, fashion. And this leads on to the next point..
#12 – Singing develops our physical characteristics
We’ve already mentioned how singing encourages efficient, controlled breathing. But this bears repeating!
Singing is an aerobic activity – as we breathe deeply when we sing, we draw more oxygen into our bodies, and in doing so, we help to oxygenate not only our bloodstreams but our brains too. And because sharing songs with young children often include actions, movements and gestures, these reactions also help to develop coordination across the body – both in fine and gross motor skills.
#13- Singing opens up creative opportunities
Singing with this age group opens up so many creative opportunities, because you never have to sing the same song twice in exactly the same way.
You may not have noticed, but as soon as a child knows the words and actions to a song, they naturally go on to extend it further, to make it their own, and to ‘play’ with it aurally, just as they would extend their play with any of their physical toys.
For example, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ often lends itself to becoming ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ or ‘Baa Baa Spotty-pink-and-purple Sheep-with-a-big-nose-and-pointy-ears’ (which the children find hilarious!), or not even a sheep at all!
This is how it should be.
We should always be encouraging the children to extend their musical, creative and imaginative boundaries.
#14 – Singing offers other ways to communicate
And this point is also a natural progression from the last.
Singing offers another way to communicate almost anything.
If a child has little understanding of English, or they need a strong routine and predictability to their learning, a song can provide such security. It is, in effect, a brief safe musical space for exploration and development.
Furthermore, it also provides the adult with ways to diffuse emotional outbursts and to deliver what could be ‘dry’ instructions in a lively and inviting style.
#15 – You don’t have to be good at singing to reap the rewards
Sharing a song isn’t, at this age, about perfection of delivery. It’s about the effort, energy and enthusiasm with which it is delivered. Children live ‘in the moment’ and they love to be securely engaged in an activity where their curiosity is aroused. That is something we can offer to the children through a song regardless of the quality of our singing or our expertise at the rhythms and pitches. And just to reassure you – research has shown that singers can experience the same range of benefits even when “the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” It’s more about the intention of your delivery than it is about the vocal quality.
#16 – Many songs engage the emotions and so help to develop empathy
Early childhood is filled with a range of emotional experiences and children need to learn to recognise, understand, manage and express their emotions in appropriate ways. This management is part of their developing self-regulation.
Self regulation is learning to control one’s emotions and behaviours appropriately and it has been found to be highly correlated with a child’s later mental health and educational success.
Many songs provide opportunities for young children to explore a range of emotions and act them out in a safe environment. For example, some songs create musical anticipation – they build up tension or suspense which is then released in a fun way (think of ‘round and round the garden’ – the counting adds suspense and the ‘tickle’ provides release). Other songs require the child to change pace or dynamics as they sing. Children are drawn towards songs and games that help them act out, explore, and then manage their feelings. These often include things they are afraid of, or rules that they don’t fully understand. Musical games are a healthy way for children to explore concepts of fear and safety, right and wrong, and cause and effect.
Research has shown that children who join in regular musical activities are more likely to demonstrate a higher level of self-regulation than those who haven’t participated.
#17 – Singing combines so many brain areas all at once
Besides requiring us to listen with concentration, songs also help us to develop other neurological areas such as cognition, memory, coordination, stamina and focus.
Studies have shown that when we are engaged in singing, and paying attention to both the rhythmical and melodic elements of a song, then both sides of the brain are stimulated at the same time, rather than it just being either the analytical left hemisphere or the more creative right hemisphere individually.
When we participate in a song, neurons in the structure that connect the two hemispheres of the brain together (- the corpus callosum) are activated so that both hemispheres ‘fire’ at the same time. This increased brain activity supports the creation of many neural pathways which in turn contribute to increased levels of brain function.
(And that’s why adult musicians are more likely to be highly skilled in decision making and problem solving!)
#18 – Singing improves our general psychological well being
Singing out loud releases feel-good hormones called endorphins that make you feel happy and positive. As sing with CBeebies states: “There is also a tiny part of your inner ear, called the sacculus, that releases even more happy hormones when it’s stimulated by music”.
#19 – Singing supports our speech, pronunciation and vocal development
In addition to all the wonderful benefits already listed above, singing is a valuable way to strengthen our vocal cords.
It can also improve the range of our voices along with developing a richer vocal tone.
Furthermore, it helps us to increase the tonal colours of our expressive qualities (by singing with ‘feeling’; loudly, softly, sadly, happily etc.) and the flexibility of our overall speech intonation ( – the ways in which our voice rises and falls as we speak).
Additionally, and particularly through early childhood, it also helps to strengthen the muscles around our lips and in our tongues which encourages and supports us with the ways we form words so that we develop clear diction in our speech.
#20 – Sharing a song provides us with a sense of creating something that is larger than ourselves
It is a well known phenomenon that is as old as human history.
As you can see from all the points above, whenever we participate in singing and moving together, we experience a sense of creating something that is bigger than the self. Young children experience this too.
Singing is such powerful social glue!
Singing is a mood-booster and an invigorating physical experience. Sharing a song or two with our 3 – 7s is a truly reciprocal activity; we may think we are doing the giving (through offering the song in the first place) while the children do the taking (joining in and learning from the experience), but to be honest, the song is the product doing the giving whilst we are taking so much understanding and learning from observing the ways in which our children interact with this often magical and hear-warming experience.
Sing a song with your child today and observe, really observe, what is going on as you do so. There are so many treasures to find!
There are many different benefits that arise from engaging in singing activities. These apply to all ages, from childhood into adolescence, through into retirement age and beyond
Dr Clare Seymour
Clare has spent much of her professional career (over 30 years) in international settings. Part of her Doctoral research involved exploring the often hidden aspects of institutional racism. As a result she has a longstanding interest in, and passion for, promoting positive Diversity.
In addition to school music-teaching, Clare also has over 10 years’ experience working as an international music examiner – an understanding and respect for Diversity is so crucially important in every aspect of her practice.