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Introducing Toddlers to Music

Music is a natural part of life for toddlers. They might sing to their stuffed animals, tap their feet to the rhythm of nursery rhymes, and enjoy the sound of their parents singing to them — even if mom and dad can't quite carry a tune.

But this early introduction to music does more than entertain. It can kickstart learning, serve as an important cue in a child's routine, and offer lifelong benefits.

Music contributes to what experts call "a rich sensory environment." This simply means exposing kids to a wide variety of tastes, smells, textures, colors, and sounds — experiences that can forge more pathways between the cells in their brains.

These neural connections will help kids in almost every area of school, including reading and math. Just listening to music can make these connections, but the biggest impact on comes if kids actively participate in musical activities.

Of course there's another reason to introduce music into your toddler's world: It's enjoyable for both of you. That will come as no surprise to parents who sing songs with their child, sway and twirl together to favorite CDs, or listen to lullabies as they rock their child to sleep.

I Got Music, I Got Rhythm

Between the ages of 1 and 3, kids respond best to music when they actively experience it. Passive listening (like in the car) is fine, but look for opportunities to get your child rocking, marching, rolling, tapping, clapping, and moving to the beat.

Share songs that go along with simple hand motions or dance moves, like The "Itsy Bitsy Spider," "The Wheels on the Bus," "Two Little Blackbirds," or the "Hokey Pokey." For younger kids, a parent's lap is a great place to put music and movement together. Have your child face you and be sure to smile as you bounce your knees to chants like "Trot, Trot to Boston" or "To Market, To Market."

If you don't know a lot of kids' songs and rhymes, you can borrow books, CDs, and DVDs from the local library. But also feel free to make it up as you go along. Create your own silly songs and hand motions. Try to use your child's name in the song or rhyme. Or just turn on some music and dance together. Show your toddler how to move with the music by twirling quickly to a fast song and swooping slowly to a song with a longer, slower beat. Introduce props like scarves, balloons, or stuffed animals to dance with.

At this age, kids can sporadically keep time — you'll notice this if you give a toddler a pot and a wooden spoon and sing a song or play some music that has a steady tempo. You can encourage this by grabbing your own spoon, inviting your toddler to bang out a rhythm, and then imitating what he or she does. Extend the game by tapping a slightly more complicated rhythm and inviting your child to follow or by asking your child to tap on different surfaces — the floor, your back, a pillow — and seeing what sound these different taps make.

Music Can Teach

Songs are a lot more fun than flashcards and can teach toddlers important facts and skills. For instance, singing the ABC song can help a child learn the alphabet, "This Old Man" teaches counting, and "There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly" helps with rhyming and memory.

And you can encourage creativity by singing new words to familiar tunes like "Drive, Drive, Drive Your Car" for "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or by inserting your child's name in "Did You Ever See a Lassie?"

You're likely to find your child favoring a few songs and rhymes and wanting to hear them again and again. While this may become dull for you, your child is on to something. Repetition helps kids learn.

It's important to note that toddlers won't learn to read or understand music at this point. They won't pick up individual notes, for instance, but will experiment with different pitches. You may notice your toddler singing made-up songs that slide from high to low and back again. Usually these songs will not have a regular rhythm.

Kids this age also are learning about keeping a steady beat and making coordinated movements — skills that are critical to math and reading later on. Encourage this development by tapping the beat with your foot while you sing and by chanting simple nursery rhymes.

Adding Instruments

If you'd like to introduce an instrument, keep it simple. Very young toddlers will enjoy instruments they can shake — bells, rattles, shakers, tambourines, or rain sticks. As your child gets older and a little more coordinated, try rhythm instruments that can be banged, like drums, cymbals, or xylophones.

Some 2- to 3-year-olds can use simple wind instruments, like a recorder, a pipe whistle, or a kazoo. Many companies now make musical instruments that are appropriately sized and shaped for little hands and that are safe for toddlers — check the label when you buy them.

Kids usually don't start formal instruction to learn an instrument until they're older, but you might have heard of the Suzuki method. It's geared to kids as young as 2 or 3 for the violin, but parents must be present for the lessons and involved in both the instruction and the learning process.

If your child does begin formal instruction, make sure it is with a certified instructor at a reputable school and that the instrument used is adapted for a young child. And, of course, you'll want to have reasonable expectations of how much a child can master at this young age.

Music Can Soothe

Once your toddler is familiar with music, it can be a source of comfort and soothing. Don't be surprised if you hear your child singing in bed or while playing, or serenading dolls or stuffed animals, especially if you have made a habit of singing to him or her yourself.

When music is part of the everyday routine, these songs can help your child know what to expect and feel more secure. For instance, if you always sing a lullaby at bedtime or naptime, your child will come to see this as a cue for "go to sleep."

Here are some other ways music can help your child make transitions through the day:

In addition, you can use music to alter your child's mood — and your own. While soft, gentle music seems just right for bedtime, louder, bouncier music could be just the boost you both need when it's time to clean up the toys.

Music All Around

Kids' music CDs are great, but don't forget to share your own favorite music with your kids. A toddler who loves Beethoven or Bruce Springsteen? Why not? Folk music and music from other cultures also can be good choices for kids. When you try new music, ask if your child likes it and discuss your opinion as well.

Though toddlers aren't likely to be ready for a night at the opera, you might be able to find live performances suitable for kids. Museums, libraries, and bookstores often host child-friendly events. Outdoor concerts where kids can run around without disturbing anyone are also a good bet.

You might also enroll your child in a music class. If you do, be sure the class is developmentally appropriate — for kids this age, that means it shouldn't last more than 45 minutes and it should be something you and your child do together. Classes are a fun way to enjoy music together; they're also good sources for music and activities to enjoy at home. Check the music department at your local university if you need help finding a music class.

Even if you do take a class with your child, remember that you are your child's first and most important teacher when it comes to music — and so much more. To help your child really benefit from a music class, be sure to bring the music and games you learn there into your home.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: February 2012

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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