Learning & Development: Music: Part 2 - Shake, rattle and roll

Emma Hutchinson
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Suggestions on choosing and using the most productive musical resources for babies and young children are offered by Emma Hutchinson.

Music is immersed into the lives of babies, toddlers and young children through a myriad of sounds in their daily experiences. Mobile phones, doorbells, intercom music, cars screeching, electronic toys, all carry an immense range of frequencies for babies to tune in to. Sharing these experiences through music-making with the adults they love enhances and heightens bonding and engagement.

The 'feel-good' factor from making music together enables young children to further explore their world, which is already bursting with different sounds, and to develop mutual communication and playful activity. Many musical resources, if carefully chosen and appropriately used, will open new doors to an adult's perception of what constitutes music-making, aside from buying into regular weekly classes or just singing a song.

Music, unlike other academic subjects, fills our daily life. Besides the obvious educational benefits that music-making brings - social, motor (physical) co-ordination, fine-tuning (of different sounds) of aural ability, focus, vocal/speech development - sharing musical experiences with babies and young children is fun and engaging.

By investing in a few quality resources, early years practitioners and parents can increase children's ability to make music, and open up a world that requires no academic music or instrumental ability.


Buying instruments for babies and toddlers must be considered carefully if you want young children to tune into quality sounds and not the dull, plastic versions available which, though cheap, tend to break and provide less musical engagement then a mobile phone (see box).

A few high-quality instruments will do far more to enrich musical experiences than a set of cheap ones. Nor will they be discarded as 'yet another toy'. If you have a restricted budget, build up your collection over time. Respect for and exploration of just one instrument takes time.

Advise parents to invest in just a couple of delightful instruments that can be kept together for toddlers to bring out when they wish.

Instruments should be an appropriate size, and have a range of interesting sounds and textures for young children and adults to explore. The best testers, when choosing instruments, are the children themselves (once you have done the initial check). If instruments are wrapped in plastic and cannot be tested, don't buy them.

Instruments should be explored and enjoyed freely, and toddlers will put them in their mouths from time to time, so check the quality of the paint and look for any sharp edges.

Reflecting on how you plan to engage children musically and use the instruments will also help you make the right choice.

Whatever you buy, always teach the children, whatever their age, the names of each instrument. A stirring pot is in fact an octochime. Rhythm sticks are claves, shakers can be maraquitas, maracas, wooshas, calabash, shekere and so on. The names are often onomatopoeic (that is, the word resembles the sound the instrument makes), so they can be useful in helping to remember the related sound (see glossary, p22).


  • - Create a special corner and place a selective range of instruments for children to explore. Consider a Wood Week/Metal Week/Shaking Week/Loud or Quiet Week and so on. Encourage children to respect and care for instruments as something special.
  • - Link instruments from a 'music table' into the nursery theme such as springtime, animals, travelling and so on.
  • - Transform storytelling sessions by using a range of high-quality instruments to bring a story to life - the Nursery Treasure Basket was designed with this in mind (see below). When enjoying storytelling, give the children time to respond with interesting sounds - your idea of sound-making may not be theirs!
  • - Keep the playing simple. Work with a regular beat, as the children's focus will be on playing instruments, rather than singing words. Wooden spoons make great beaters. Beat what you had for lunch, your name, imitate each other's rhythm or even have a 'conversation'!
  • - Enjoy exploring 'start' and 'stop' without saying anything. For example, play merrily, then hug your instrument still. Let the children 'see' silence. Now try stopping after playing, and observe their response. What do they do? What do they say?
  • - Observe the sound frequency of each instrument, and how each child responds. Is she distressed? Does he want more of the same?
  • - With babies, try playing your instrument, then watch their responses and how they turn, frown, sit up, complain - the messages that come back can be both rewarding and powerful, and provide an insight to each child's sensory make-up.


Encourage children to choose from the resources that you offer. Place the child on the floor and give them time to explore the resources available. You could then offer a musical starting point by playing a chosen instrument, or moving fabric to a chosen song such as 'London Bridge is Falling Down'. The child will reflect, copy or participate.

After a moment, withdraw and observe, allow the child to explore further, give them a little encouragement, then join in with another song you may know. Early years practitioners will learn much through active and 'inactive' participation, and by dipping in and out of a child's engagement.

Very young children will often have a little 'conversation' on hearing the sounds an instrument makes or on observing the movement of resources.


Whether or not you invest in commercially available instruments, don't miss out on the fun of making your own instruments with the children, using a range of clean junk material. However, do test and play the instruments yourself, as a well-used home-made instrument has a short life span. Examples of home-made instruments that you could make are:

Shakers: Fill small plastic water bottles or Tupperware containers with some big pasta beads or coloured water (visually pleasing). Use bottles and containers of various sizes and be sure to secure the lids tightly.

Claves made out of dowelling: Dowels approximately 15cm long and with rounded edges are ideal for older nursery children and great to use when beating time together to a song.

Guiro: Create a wonderful guiro (scraping) sound with a wooden dish stacker and a wooden spoon.

Cymbals: Beat saucepan lids together to create a great sound and help promote motor co-ordination.

Drums: For loud drums, use big metal tins, with cardboard tops or plastic lids. Make sure there are no sharp edges and secure the tops firmly.

  • - Small saucepans are fun to bang on the floor and to beat with a spoon.
  • - Plastic and tin pots (not cans), filled with a few pasta shells and sealed well, make lovely drums.
  • - Create interesting sound effects with newspaper balls.
  • - Strong babies will be able to produce interesting soft sounds with cushions and wooden spoons.
  • - Beat wooden floors with your hands.
  • - Make a musical washing line - thread string through the middle of crushed silver foil, then attach, with string, items such as tiny finger cymbals, bottle tops, plastic balls, wooden blocks, individual bells, spoons, old keys. Hang at an appropriate height (try between the tops of two kitchen chairs) where a toddler can touch and push the 'instruments'. Avoid putting anything too heavy on the line or it will sag quickly.


Resources needn't be restricted to musical instruments. Others to consider are:

Fabric: Any cotton off-cuts of curtain, cloth, shirts, sheets or pillowcases that can be made into a 15cm by 15cm square provide a delightful addition to your own music treasure basket. Put on a favourite piece of music, sing a song and move the fabric with the music. Give one to the toddlers and watch them wiggle, sway and swish their 'scarf' along with the music. This small, easy resource helps small children to move and is resourceful in numerous other ways - it can be a hat, a bed, a table, a boat, a pillow, a cloth, or fairy wand, snake, fan, rain, snow, ball, pond.

Puppets: Simply stick or sew on two eyes and the imagination takes care of the rest. Socks make great worms, snakes, or chatty characters. Add sound-effects and they can be a cow, horse or pig. If you don't know any character or animal songs, play a suitable CD and encourage the puppet to 'chat' and to move with the music. Interaction between you and the child can be brief - the child will take over, or you can both enjoy moving together with two puppets.

Boxes: Create a colourful music box. Encourage the children to help paint it or decorate it sticking on pictures or shapes. Place a couple of home-made musical instruments or a maraca inside and let the children explore. Change the instrument from time to time for variety. Or put toy animals inside and encourage the children to make the animal sounds when they open the lid.

Balls: Provide soft balls in varying sizes and roll them around as you listen to music or sing songs.

Lycra sheet: This is a fantastic musical resource for groups of children. Encourage children and adults to grasp the edge, pop a teddy in the middle and rock to a lullaby, or 'row, row your boat' gently before lifting up on 'stream'. Adapt well-known songs so that you can use a variety of characters with the lycra.


It's worth investing in some good CDs and song books. When choosing and using and CDs:

  • - Choose music that you enjoy too, as this helps adult and child to engage.
  • - Consider CDs without words and with lots of strong beat as well as rhythm, since the focus in the nursery should be on playing along.
  • - Avoid playing background music too often, so as to encourage a focused musical time.
  • - There are a great many nursery CDs, available but choose ones that pronounce words correctly, are not pitched too high and are easy to hear.
  • - Avoid gimmick CDs that promote a particular toy or show.
  • - Make up your own songs and musical games using the fire siren sound, which uses just two notes. Suggestions are 'dancing, dancing', 'up down, up down', 'where is the duck?'


A Little Birdsong, A Little Birdsong - Tales and A Little Birdsong - More Tales by Emma Hutchinson are three illustrated musical storybooks for children to enjoy reading, singing and dancing along to. They come with a quality CD of traditional and world music.

Three Tapping Teddies by Kaye Umansky (A&C Black) has lots of musical tales from traditional melodies and comes with a CD.

Bobby Shaftoe, Clap Your Hands: Musical Fun with New Songs from Old Favorites by Sue Nicholls (A&C Black) is a collection of songs created from traditional melodies which comes with a CD with lots of ideas on how to play, to join in and to accompany with new verses.

Playsongs: Action Songs and Rhymes for Babies and Toddlers compiled by Sheena Roberts (Playsongs) comes with a CD full of songs and rhymes for very young children.


Any good children's books with a repetitive narrative and lots of sounds and movement are great to accompany with music-making.

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle (Puffin)

We All Go Travelling By by Sheena Roberts and Siobahn Bell (Barefoot Books)

The Animal Boogie by Debbie Harter (Barefoot Books)

The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle (Puffin)

Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd (Puffin)

Ten Seeds by Ruth Brown (Andersen Press)

Oi! Get Off Our Train by John Burningham (Red Fox)

With these ideas, early years practitioners and parents can enjoy new ways to have fun with music, while taking out the mundane routine from singing and dancing.

- Emma Hutchinson is an early years specialist, founder of the Music House for Children and member of MERYC UK (Music Educators and Researchers of Young Children). www.musichouseforchildren.co.uk, emma@musichouseforchildren.co.uk, www.meryc.eu/pages content strand ecme/MERYC UK group.html



Unfortunately, music shops tend to have a minimal supply of quality instruments for very young children, while toy suppliers often take advantage of the lack of music advice available and supply poor-quality instruments.

The Music House for Children (www.musichouseforchildren.co.uk) with Drums for Schools (www.drumsforschools.co.uk) has developed the Baby's Treasure Basket, a finalist in the Nursery World Awards 2010 category for Birth to Threes: new launch. A nursery version is also available.

Each has bespoke and beautifully made instruments for very young children and babies. Both come with a song booklet offering lots of ideas. Names of the instruments are phonetically pleasing, such as jinglies, tik tok and shakerscraper.

Drums for Schools also provides beautifully made ethnic instruments for young children.

LMS Music Supplies (www.lmsmusicsupplies.co.uk) supports nurseries with a large range of quality baby instruments, ranging from drums to shakers. Although some are made from man-made fibre, the quality is far better than found in toy shops, and they are visually pleasing. The website has a well-researched section on instruments for children.

Knock on Wood (www.knockonwood.co.uk) stocks musical instruments from all corners of the globe, with tuition books and DVDs to match. Also available is a range of large outdoor musical instruments. Check the sizes of instruments for young children before buying.

Putumayo (www.putumayo.com) does an excellent selection of accessible world music.

In local music shops, look for smaller versions of adult instruments (maracas, drums, tambours), but first check their weight and design to be sure of their suitability for young children.

With ethnic music suppliers, look for durable materials that do not break when you shake or beat them. They should be approximately adult handsized and light enough for a toddler to pick up. Bells should be fixed firmly, with no points or sharp edges. Any paint should not scrape off (evident with banging claves together), and should be marked as non-toxic. You should avoid instruments that are completely covered with paint, as this can dull their sound.


Claves - two small sticks made of wood that can be tapped together

Octochime - an eight-sided wooden pot with a stick that can be moved round all the sides

Shekere or calabash - large round, wooden shaker with handle, and a net of beads on the outside

Maraquitas - a small wooden or plastic shaker with beads inside

Woosha - small, ribbed wooden tube with beads inside

Jinglies - small wooden stick with three small silver bells

Tik tok - woodenhandled two-sided round block with wooden stick

Shakerscraper - round ribbed wooden instrument with beads inside and skin for tapping.

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