Most of us adults forget how as children we often had music and singing around us on a daily basis. I remember as a child being sung nursery rhymes likes Humpty Dumpty or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes by my grandmother. I don’t think my grandmother, or anyone in my family for that matter, is known for being a talented singer (apologies to my parents and any siblings cousins who might be reading this). In spite of that, I loved it when my grandmother would sing to me and my siblings. It seems with technology replacing a lot of face to face time, some of us might start to believe that the songs that even small toddlers can find by themselves on YouTube are a superior substitution to the sometimes off-tune voices of parents and caregivers. But, this isn’t necessarily true. Sure, children are often fascinated with the music they find on YouTube but small children don’t necessarily absorb the words as much as the images they are seeing. They learn best from human interaction (Kuhl, Tsao, Liu, 2003).
Singing songs can be an excellent way to teach your child your primary language! Also, depending on your child’s communication development, it can be a great way to target so many communication goals: social interaction, language comprehension, improving speech-sound production, and even preparing children to be better readers in the future (Kirk & Gillon, 2007). Children’s songs can add to your child’s vocabulary, and because there is so much repetition in the verses, it can help them with vocabulary retention.
When I first began working in early intervention, I noticed some of the parents I worked with were hesitant at first to sing with their child. When I would bring out a little bus to sing about the wheels on the bus, the reaction I got wasn’t always enthusiastic. “My child doesn’t like singing.” “Songs don’t interest him.” “She only likes to listen to YouTube.” When I first started out as a new clinician, I believed this and put the little bus away, opting for the bubbles instead as they’re always a crowd pleaser. But, with some of the children who seemed less resistant, I persisted. And here is what I usually saw:
It takes some time before they join in. Rarely on a first session would a child join in and sing along with me. In the beginning, most children would look up at me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion as I sang while opening and closing my cupped hands to make a twinkling little star. They usually didn’t even try to sing along until the sixth or seventh visit. However, their parents mentioned that usually after being exposed to the song just a few times, their child would hum it or say a few words to himself after I left.
Repetition Is Key. If you sing a song once or twice and the child doesn’t join in or even show interest and prefer instead to knock over the elephant you’ve placed in front of them as you’re singing Un elefante don’t scrap the song. Persist. Sing the song a few times during the day, while you’re in the car, or discreetly while you’re in line at the store. If your child will let you, help her make the hand movements with the song.
Slow down! One complaint I have about a lot of children’s songs you can buy online or listen to on YouTube is that they are sung too fast. So fast that children and even adults can’t keep up. You miss out on a lot of the benefits of singing. Slow down when you are singing with your child and look for slower songs, or play them at a slower speed.
Use Gestures! Gestures are great for a few reasons: they engage active toddlers, reinforce learning of vocabulary, and for toddlers who aren’t yet speaking, they can gesture to follow along with the music.
Be Aware of Sensitivity to Sounds Remember that to some children who have sensory processing differences, such as some of our children on the autism spectrum, may not like the variation in pitch that happens when we sing. So what can we do instead? Laura Mize, a pediatric speech-language pathologist whose podcast and materials got me through my first few years as a new clinician, recommends chanting. And I have heard this same recommendation from occupational therapists I know who work on sensory processing.
Please share your favorite songs below as well as your experience with bringing in the children’s songs to boost language and speech development. Also, watch in my future online store for a manual I’ll be publishing with popular children’s songs in English and Spanish that includes a variety of strategies for targeting varies goals in speech and language.