Music – It’s more than meets the ear

Hedda SharapanA gazillion times! Is that how many times you’ve sung “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” and “Wheels on the Bus”? I know it’s not easy to continue to find the energy and enthusiasm to sing those same songs over and over again. But I hope you know how much you’re giving children with these simple traditional songs.

With children’s songs you have a great opportunity to promote some really important school readiness skills, not just language development, but also math and science concepts, and even social-emotional development.

I was reminded of the connection between songs and “school readiness” when I was interviewed for Bam Radio by one of my NAEYC music friends, “Miss Jackie” Silberg. She had asked me to talk about what I’ve learned from Fred Rogers about why music was important to young children.

What came to mind was our “Lullabies to Literacy” workshop, which includes a video segment of a Neighborhood visit with one of our favorite neighbors -- Ella Jenkins. The video gives us a great opportunity to take a close look at someone who’s a master at using music with children. When I watch Ella at work, she always gives me a new appreciation for how much children can learn from those traditional songs. And I love the way Fred adds his own creative fun to extend the learning even further, just as you can.

Here are some ideas that can help you be more intentional about using songs to help children develop the tools they’ll need for school – and to help you keep on singing them a gazillion times!


  • If you want children to WANT to learn to read and write words, help them looooooove the sound of words. Songs can do that – and even when you have sung them for the gazillionth time, remember how important your looooooove of words is to children. Songs give children a fun way to learn new words and build vocabulary, too.
  • Songs are full of rhyming words. When children hear words that rhyme, they become more aware that we can make different words by manipulating the small units of sounds. That’s phonemic awareness which is a key pre-reading skill.
  • You’re strengthening memory skills when you ask children to call out other verses to a song like “Wheels on the Bus” and “Where Is Thumbkin?” Another memory booster is to leave out the last word of a line – like Ella Jenkins did on the video -- and encourage children to fill in the rhyming word. The rhyme makes it easier to remember the word.
  • Finger plays like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Wheels on the Bus” and “Where Is Thumbkin?” are so much fun that children want to work at the coordination and fine motor skills needed for the motions in those songs. Those are pre-writing skills.


  • Some songs give children ways to understand science concepts like “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.” You could remind children of those lyrics on a rainy day that’s turned sunny and the sun has evaporated the rain. Songs help children learn spatial relationships, too, like “up the water spout and down came the rain” or “the driver on the bus says ‘move on back.’” We can also use songs like “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to help children learn parts of the body.
  • Children learn to count with songs like “This Old Man He played One,” and even to subtract with songs like “Five Little Ducks Went Out to Play.”


  • As children learn songs they feel proud of themselves for what they know and what they can do. It gives them a sense of mastery and feeling successful.
  • You’re helping children develop self-control when you cue them to sing quieter and/or slower at the end of a song or the last verse, like Ella Jenkins did on the video.
  • Some songs, like “The Hokey Pokey” and “Open, Shut Them” give children practice controlling parts of their bodies. With hand-clapping songs like “Miss Mary Mack” children get a physical sense of their hands so they become more aware of their body boundaries (the first stage of developing self-control).
  • Songs can help children express their feelings. I know a teacher who changed the song to “If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet,” when she wanted to give children a controlled physical way to express their feelings. I’ll never forget Bev Bos at the NAEYC memorial service for the late great Tom Hunter, talking about how he always welcomed children with “Hello, hello, I’m great and how are you?”, but one day he came in feeling frustrated. So he sang, “Hello, hello, I’m frustrated and how are you?” What a great way to help children know feelings are natural, norma, and something we can talk about.
  • Many teachers and parents tell us that Fred Rogers’ songs continue to have special meaning for them. Music was a natural way for Fred to express his feelings, and he encouraged children and families to use it that way, too.
  • Music gives you a great way to cue children into routines, like the morning welcome song that’s predictable and helps children feel secure, or the “Clean Up” song as a firm but kind way to signal that it’s time to stop playing.
  • Maybe most important of all, singing is a wonderful way for you to build a nurturing relationship. When you sing lullabies, lap songs and finger plays with children, you’re connecting with them in a warm and caring way. And as Fred Rogers often reminded us, “It’s through relationships that we learn best.”

Most children’s songs are simple enough musically that you don’t need to be able to sing well. Children love singing so much that they’ll be forgiving if you can’t carry a tune. So don’t worry that you won’t make “American Idol” – just enjoy singing along with the children, knowing you’re building important skills for their future.

P.S. It was great to hear from so many of our readers who wanted to forward our newsletter on to their staff, or parents or college students. We hope you’ll do that. In fact, we encourage it! We’d also love to hear from you about ways that the newsletter is helpful to you. We’re glad to be partners with you in the important work you’re doing for children and families.

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