Educators say music is a simple—and fun—way to boost brain and language development.
I am in awe of my 4-year-old grandson as he belts out a song from the back of a giant blue whale on a Columbus Zoo and Aquarium playground. “When the lights are good, say it loud and clear,” he sings as he stomps his feet, thrusts out his arms and wobbles, just a bit, before catching his balance and continuing his made-up song for an impromptu audience.
I am not surprised by his unabashed, fearless performance: He and I sing whenever we’re together, and I know he’s been hearing his mother sing since before he was born. When he’s with me, we sing when he washes his hands, brushes his teeth, uses the bathroom, climbs in his car seat and sits down for lunch.
What does surprise me is how important singing can be for a young child’s development.
“Early childhood is the critical period for language development, and we know that if that development doesn’t happen during those first five years, the opportunity for it to happen goes away,” explains Anneliese Johnson, principal of Ohio State University’s School for Early Learning at the Schoenbaum Family Center. “Reading, singing and talking with children builds all of that brain development, and it’s the most important thing you can do for them.”
Singing, she says, develops a child’s phonemic awareness: the ability to identify sounds, break them apart and put them back together again. Children with early phonemic awareness do well in language and literacy skills, she says.
This isn’t the same as learning phonetics, which is a reading skill, says Johnson. Phonemic awareness is strictly a hearing skill, but it’s one of the most important for children 5 and younger, she says. “If you’re singing in the car to your baby, they’re hearing the sounds and they’re making the connections between rhyming sounds, which are critical,” Johnson says. As they grow older, youngsters can fill in the rhymes on songs such as “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” or substitute their own words on songs like “The Name Game” (Shirley Shirley bo-ber-ley, fa-na-na fanna fo-fer-ley. Mee-mi-mo mer-ley, Shirley!)
Jo Kirk, president and founder of WeJoySing, has long been convinced of the importance of singing; her company offers music programs for children from birth to age 11 in Central Ohio and North Canton. “When a parent joyfully sings with a child, the child begins to experiment with singing, and singing is a child’s main mode of musical participation,” Kirk says. “The parent is modeling for the child when they sing, and a child learns that, ‘I can join in and be a part of what Mommy and Daddy are doing.’ ”
Singing with children also encourages them to be better listeners, nurtures their vocabulary and often helps them accept direction, Kirk says. “We always sing in class when it’s time to put things away, and it’s like magic,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many of my parents tell me how well that works.”
Kirk encourages parents to sing both silly, made-up songs and old-time favorites, such as the “ABC Song” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” as well as folk songs like “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
“You can be singing about what you’ll have for dinner or what tasks they have to do or a lullaby,” she says. “Singing to your child creates a bond that will last a lifetime.”
Shelli Sanzo of Grandview Heights learned how beneficial singing could be in the gymnastics classes she teaches for toddlers and preschoolers at Whetstone Community Center. She includes five to 10 minutes of music during each class, with the same songs each week: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (with an altered second verse that includes a crocodile), “Here Is the Beehive” (where all of the kids buzz around like bees) and “The Noble Duke of York” (which involves marching, sitting and standing).
“They love the songs,” Sanzo says. “They learn the words, and they love coming in every week knowing what they’re going to be doing. And some kids who are really quiet become really engaged. They may not try a somersault, but they’ll sing and run around.”
OSU’s Johnson says children crave that kind of repetition and routine; she suggests singing a special going-to-bed song to ease children into sleep, for example. “The song signals to them what’s coming next and helps make transitions easier,” she says. “And singing is fun and is a natural human thing to do.”
For some moms and dads, singing doesn’t come naturally; Johnson suggests they go to library story times to get ideas about how songs can be used. “I’ve heard parents say that they feel silly singing to a baby,” she says. “But your baby is craving that. Your voice is what they want to hear, no matter how bad of a singer you are. Your baby thinks you’re the best singer ever.”