Recently, I was at my daughter’s university graduation and to my delight, the honorary doctoral degree that day was being bestowed on Raffi Cavoukian, the much beloved children’s troubadour who began his career with children in the 1970’s. Raffi’s songs are internationally known, with classics like Baby Beluga and Bananaphone. In my first school music teaching job, I remember using these and other Raffi songs in my K-3 music classes. The tunes were catchy, singable and memorable. Raffi’s songs were creative, imaginative and playful, core principles of childhood education. While I am not a Beluga kid myself, hearing Raffi speak drew me right back into the days of Friendly Giant and the hollow wooden sound of the recorder piping out Early One morning. I loved that show and looked forward to the drawbridge opening and closing and what new adventure we’d travel each day. And then there’s Mr. Dress Up. He captured my attention through several decades, as a child and then as a mother with four young children. I fondly remember Casey and Finnigan, Mr. Dress Up’s marvellous cartooning skills, the Tickle Trunk and and John Arpin’s piano introduction that hooked me in and kept me coming back. Raffi, the Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress Up, Fred Penner, Mr. Rodgers—their songs taught us something. It may have been about letters or words, shaking sillies out, character development or make-believe friends and heroes, but they each knew music could nurture a child’s imagination and develop cognitive awareness in a playful yet with aesthetic sensitivity. They also knew that singing is a lifelong activity that can bring pleasure, meaning and body-mind-spirit care. In my years as a music educator, community musician and mother, I have observed that children are comfortable with music. As toddlers they may clap their hands to music, bang on pots and pans searching for that beat they can play again and again. As they get older, children move and dance to music, sing and improvise songs. Many researchers believe that the earlier a child is exposed to music, the more the brain responds to different music tones. Through musical exploration, children may develop language, cognitive, social, emotional, physical and expressive skills. While music listening is encouraged, singing makes the child an active participant in music-making. Here are 6 song ideas that I have used with young children that encourage them to sing in a playful and expressive way:
- open ended songs – Old MacDonald is a good example of this where the main tune and lyric is repeated, but each new time, a child can think of something new to add on the farm i.e. on that farm there is a “fox” or “tractor”
- call/response songs –sing a phrase and have the child sing back a response – this idea works with daily activities and routines, stories or reinforcing vocabulary. The response may be an exact repetition of the call, a response that is always the same after new calls, or an extemporaneous response which calls on the child’s full engagement and imagination
- silly songs using rhymes or scats – rhyming sounds in particular reinforce language development, and discovering silly sounds encourages imagination. A good example is I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas where each time through a vowel becomes the predominant sound of each word.
- repeated songs – my favourite here is The Rattlin’ Bog and with younger children Wheels on the Bus – lots of opportunity for them to practise a word-melody combination
- improvised songs – when our kids were younger, we improvised songs on long car rides – we would scat, look at objects inside or outside of the vehicle and start singing about them. When they were around 9 or 10, we developed a variation where one person thought of a topic and musical genre and another person created a verse of a song complete with words in that style of music i.e. hairspray/opera
- language songs – singing songs with words in a different language and even a different melodic mode expand the cognitive scaffolding – an easy one for children to pick up is Vive l’amour
No wonder Dr. Raffi Cavoukian was recognized for his commitment to music care and child honouring. His work has deep impact and global reach. For more info on Raffi’s latest project, The Centre for Child Honouring, visit www.childhonouring.org.