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From Itsy Bitsy Spider… To Charlotte’s Web

by Amber on October 5, 2009

Steve Blunt is an award-winning kids’ musician from New Hampshire. A former middle-school English teacher, Steve now works as a music teacher and performer. His music gets kids up and dancing and he always encourages the adults to sing along. In this article he discusses the importance of music in the classroom. Music is both fun AND educational!

Steve Blunt playing music with kids

Years ago I was a middle-school English teacher, striving to inspire young people to love literature and express themselves with clarity and creativity. Now I’m a children’s musician—but my mission hasn’t changed all that much!

I like to say that my job is part-time teaching, part-time performing, and full-time fun… sharing music with kids and families. Just about every day, I spend a while singing, dancing, clapping hands, and jumping around with little kids who are a constant reminder that life is good. Not a bad gig!

Now that I’ve been doing this for a few years, I’ve come to realize that music is fun… and so much more. Especially when it comes to children’s verbal skills! I’m always amazed by how quickly young children pick up the words to songs—much faster than we adults.

Children have a tremendous capacity to absorb oral language—which we tend to lose as we get older and focus more on the written word. And yet so much of what happens while children are listening, singing, and moving along to music is preparing them to become readers, writers, and all-around language learners: Babies and toddlers who barely speak may sign the words to “The More We Get Together;” Little ones who perform the movements to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” are acquiring the ability to think in sequences (like sentences): Preschoolers who sing along to (and have an uncanny ability to predict) a rhyming refrain (“You Are My Sunshine”) are acquiring phonetic awareness; And kindergarten/elementary children who listen deeply to a “ballad”—any song that tells a good story, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” for instance—are internalizing the narrative arc that will propel them through readings of stories and chapter books.

If we value literacy—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—then we should acknowledge that age-appropriate musical activity lays a foundation for subsequent language development.

There are plenty of folks smarter than I who know a lot more about the role of music in language development… these are just some of my observations as a former classroom teacher who tries to pay attention while making music with kids and families.

Sometimes when I visit a classroom, a teacher will say that a particular child who normally doesn’t respond to story time—or perhaps other school activities—really comes alive during music sessions. For some kids, music is the most effective mode to spark enthusiasm and access verbal learning—which is basic to schooling. And some children who are most excited about music seem to be the brightest and most engaged overall. (Disclaimer: I’m not an early childhood expert and I only see groups of children during one small part of their day together. I’m certain there are highly intelligent kids who aren’t especially motivated by music but become very active learners when given the opportunity to build with blocks, mold with clay, play with toy dinosaurs, etc.)

So what’s my point? Maybe I’m just looking for a little respect—for children’s music and those of us fortunate enough to keep busy doing it. Parents and teachers, take note: Singing along and doing hand motions isn’t just this cute, entertaining thing that is nice for children to do… but ultimately irrelevant. If we value literacy—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—then we should acknowledge that age-appropriate musical activity lays a foundation for subsequent language development. Sometimes I tell audiences: “It’s a scientific fact: Music participation makes children smarter and everybody happier. The kids will be more likely to join in if we adults do the same.”

Parents, singing with your kids—at home or the next Steve Blunt concert you attend—just might be as valuable as telling a story or reading a book at bedtime!

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