The Magic of Music

Posted March 30, 2021

The Magic of Music

By Joanne Esser

Some of my favorite memories involve singing, playing, or listening to music together with other people. Around a campfire, as part of a choir, with my kids on a long car trip, with children in my classrooms over the years – music is a special pleasure, a kind of connective tissue that weaves between people and makes us feel happy.

Music affects our bodies and our emotions. This will undoubtedly date me, but I admit that I put on lively songs by Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder or Queen when I am going to clean my house. I play them loud because it energizes me and makes the task more pleasant. On the other hand, when I am going to paint, I stream some mellow indie ballads or instrumental music to set the mood. It feels as if the music enhances my creativity. Think of how hearing a song from another time in your life transports you instantaneously back to a tender moment from your past, and you feel again the emotions of that moment.

In the classroom, music is a tool that teachers use for many purposes. Singing together builds a repertoire of songs that gradually belongs to the group, creating a body of shared content and ownership. Silly songs introduce a light mood and give everyone, children and adults, permission to let loose a bit. There is nothing better than a dance party with your friends on a rainy day! Teachers use songs as cues to signal transitions, such as singing a clean-up song that is the same every day, to ease into the routine task. Or they will sing a good-bye song that mentions every member of the class by name, acknowledging and reinforcing the children’s sense of belonging.

Music can also be useful in stressful situations. Once when I was camping with a group of elementary school children, the weather turned wet and windy. The children and adults were uncomfortable, and morale was sagging. To avoid the whining that seemed inevitable in the situation, my co-teacher and I made a rule: anyone who wanted to complain had to sing their complaint. The children were only too eager to invent complaint songs – and none of us could resist laughing at the resulting ridiculous, exaggerated and even operatic songs they belted out. It shifted the atmosphere completely. I recall many times when I was awakened in the middle of the night by a fretful child and the only thing that calmed both of us was rocking and singing a gentle, repetitive song. Vibrations shared between one body and another – a sweet way to settle back down.

Music is a language that can be understood by even the youngest infant. Singing a lullaby or humming gently while rocking a baby relaxes both the child and the adult. Even if the adult “can’t carry a tune,” the vibrations and soothing pattern of the melody offer a sense of closeness. According to Deanne W. Kells, an author and music teacher, “Researchers have proven via numerous studies that music has a positive impact on the ability of people to connect with one another. Music positively affects brain pathways that influence empathy, trust, and cooperation. Furthermore, scientists believe listening to and creating music increases the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a key role in increasing bonding and trust between people.”

Music has been at the heart of the bonds I share with my grandchildren. Jazzing up a dull day by singing and dancing to Broadway tunes or simmering down before bedtime with soft favorite children’s songs is part of our routine when they come to visit.

Maria Von Trapp, the real-life heroine from one of my favorite musicals, “The Sound of Music,” once said, “Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens.” I have seen how true that can be.

The Struggle

Posted March 9, 2021
“Need a hand down there?”

The Struggle

By Rita Thoemke

This year’s toddler class has ventured where no other toddler class has roamed. It began in the fall when teachers showed the children our mud kitchen. The kids were more interested in what they would find if they followed the path beyond the mud kitchen into the woods, so we let them explore. We later brought them to the Pines, the Boulders, and on longer hikes. In past years, our toddlers stayed on the playground, free to explore anything within the fenced-in area. This class clearly was up for the additional challenges.

With new challenge comes new struggle. In the woods there are many trees that have fallen. Children love to climb up on these trees. One tree has a slide attached. While some of the toddlers climb with ease, others struggle and call out for help. As children try to conquer these challenges, teachers stand by to assure the kids are safe, but we never lift a child up into a tree or give them a boost. We do coach them, with suggestions about where they might place their feet or hands. “I wonder if it would help to place your foot over here?” Sometimes children get very frustrated and find it hard to understand why their teacher is not offering help. But that same teacher is there to celebrate the victory when they finally succeed in their climb.

Even better than a teacher offering suggestions is another child offering to help. On a recent day of sliding down the playground hill on our kick sleds, many children struggled getting the sleds back up the hill. One child discovered it was easier to push the kick sled up the hill if you turned it around and pushed it up from behind. While other kids cried out in frustration and some even abandoned their sleds at the bottom, this child went up and down the hill several times with ease. A teacher suggested that he could show the other children how he did it. Not only did the other children listen and try his suggestions, but the helping boy beamed with pride that he could offer help to others.

Sometimes this act of helping shows up in the children’s play even when it is not needed. On a mild day we discovered “Snow Mountain.” A snowbank in a safe corner of the parking lot, Snow Mountain offers a great climbing experience that is followed by a fun slide down on their bottoms. While one child was climbing up the hill, another child on top called down, “Need a hand down there?” Then, in dramatic fashion, the climbing child reached up to grab the helper’s hand. On the next go-around, these two switched roles. Soon ropes were introduced, and children quickly used them to “rescue” each other and assist in climbing up the hill.

Struggles can be found in other parts of our day as well – snack time, for example. Early in the year, some children struggled to unzip their lunch boxes or tear open their snack packages. Teachers use the same coaching strategies to encourage independence. Getting dressed to go outside is another skill that takes practice and persistence. While allowing a little bit of struggle, we have reached an exciting time of year where some kids have mastered boots and zippers and can offer assistance to their friends. It would be easy to jump in and do many of these things for the kids, but it is a joy to see a child succeed at something that took hard work to achieve. “I did it!” is music to our ears. Responding with “Look at you!” or “I had a feeling you could do it,” builds the children’s confidence and a sense of pride in their accomplishments. While it is difficult to watch a child struggle, the reward in the end is well worth it.