An overview of early childhood music education research

So where to now for early childhood music education?

Dr Peter de Vries, Monash University

Clearly, we need to be talking more – talking about what we know, what we need to know (i.e., what can we find out through research?), and stressing to the broader community just how important music education is in the first five years of life. The research I am currently undertaking suggests that parents do value music education for the Under 5s and are prepared to support music education, namely through the purchase of music CDs, videos and DVDs, and through enrolling their children in early childhood programs that do have a music focus. However, there are problems:

1) there is an over-reliance on pre-packaged music materials, and 2) parental focus on the extramusical benefits of music in the early years (i.e., “music will make my baby smarter”).

The first of these problems involves parents not engaging in music with their children, substituting singing with their children with a DVD of somebody else (or something else) singing to their child via the television! In a series of focus groups with parents I was amazed to learn that some parents had never even considered singing to their newborns or infants, and believed that simply playing a CD in the background was “good enough” to aid their children’s early musical development. This leads into the second of the two above-mentioned problems - that parents value music for what it can do for their young children’s learning in other domains. Rarely did parents mention the intrinsic benefit of music on their young children (i.e., singing and/or playing with music instruments created a sense of joy in their children).

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. What is going on out there, in Australian homes, childcare centres, pre-schools? Let’s begin this discussion – with the teachers, carers and researchers! What does the current research say about early childhood music education? How does this – or how might this – impact on music education with our young children?

Let's begin

Dr Greg Hurworth and Dr Peter de Vries, Monash University

We would like to start here, with a look at some of the research into early childhood music education that is occurring.

At the recent 14th Annual Conference of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education [January, 2006, held at Monash University], there were four papers out of 52 which had an Arts’ focus. Of these, two were concerned with music. One was by Dr Berenice Nyland and Dr Jill Ferris of RMIT University, and the other was by Dr Greg Hurworth of Monash University.

Berenice & Jill’s paper, titled Music in Early Childhood: An Australian Experience, reported on research that has studied a group of three-year-old children encountering music in a specialist music program. Utilising case study material on this particular group of children, the paper discussed children’s musical competence in a specific environment and then developed this discussion in relation to the wider context of policy, research and practice.

This research was based on various factors that face music in early childhood. For example, in recent years, the place of the arts in early childhood education has been undermined by a political agenda that emphasises literacy and numeracy. Music, which once held a prominent place in early childhood teacher training courses now is poorly represented. Whilst the visual arts are still part of many early childhood programs, music has been less resilient. This situation has meant some centres have developed their own specialist music programs and others use visiting teachers and companies like Mini Maestros.

Jill and Berenice’s research emphasises the need to put early childhood music education back on the agenda, to stress to the wider community the importance of music in early childhood educational settings, and examine what is occurring in Australian settings.

In England, Susan Young has also been conducting research that focuses on music education and development with young children, with implications for early childhood practitioners worldwide. In her study of young children’s spontaneous vocalisations (2004), Young suggests that practitioners in early childhood settings should not simply be acting as models which the children in their care simply imitate. Rather, children should be involved in playing with songs in dramatic situations, in creative life-relevant activities to children.

One of the examples Susan describes is a “song play area”, where the practitioner (teacher) chose a song about jellyfish jumping off a rock for her children to sing. But rather than simply sitting the children down in a circle and teaching them the song by rote, the practitioner set up the area with blue cloth, rocks and fishing nets, and invited children to play. She would either sing for them, with them or prompt the children to sing the song, depending on their competence and their mood. As a result participation was not forced, and the young children engaged in dramatic play as they sang the song (or parts of the song), added their own movements to the song and their own vocalisations.

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