Reinventing the Wheels on the Bus


(This article appears in the October issue of TEMPO,
the magazine of the NJ Music Educators Association.)

Reinventing the Wheels on the Bus:
Music Improvisation with Young Children

Several years ago, I was presenting a workshop on rhythm instrument activities to a group of elementary music teachers. It was going well, the participants seemed interested and engaged and were good sports about trying out the silly activities I’ve created for young children. There was one activity, though, which gave them a lot of trouble. It was a memory game where we each had a pair of rhythm sticks. One by one, each person in the circle had to play a different way. We’d copy them and then play all the different ways the previous people had played, in backwards order.

Remembering the different ways people had played was no problem for the grownup participants. In fact, it was downright easy-peasy, because the first person had tapped the floor with the sticks; the second had tapped her feet; the third, his knees, and so on.  I was amazed, amused and kind of appalled. Compared to the children I teach, all of whom are under seven years old, these people had no imagination whatsoever!

Well, how many things can you do with rhythm sticks? Sticks are sticks, right?


Over the twenty years I’ve been working with children, I’ve discovered that sticks can be paintbrushes, windshield wipers, stirring spoons, gearshifts, anteater snouts (yep!), skis, ski poles, rolling pins, walking canes, T’s, X’s and V’s (and more letters if children use more than one set of sticks), hot dogs, and seesaws – and more. I’ve seen them tap, scrape, walk, run, jump, fly, slide, turn upside down, and move in literally countless ways.

Young children are overflowing with creative ideas. They haven’t yet learned which kinds of responses are “correct” or “appropriate,” so their thinking is much more fluid and open than that of adults. Their energy, curiosity and eagerness to express themselves make them highly original thinkers. Our job is to encourage them, to respect their ideas, and give them plenty of opportunities to express and develop their creativity. If teachers and schools did more to nurture children’s creative thinking, perhaps these children, far from losing their creativity as adults, would  actually grow to become even more creative!

One way to develop children’s creative thinking skills is through improvisational music activities, particularly those involving rhythm instruments and creative movement.

Young children are constantly improvising, and it helps them learn in all kinds of ways.

  1. Improvisation helps children integrate concepts and make them their own. They may hear the word “wiggly,” and even watch something wiggly, but if they move an instrument like a wiggly worm, they understand the concept in a more meaningful way.

  2. Improvisation helps children practice creative thinking skills by putting two or more ideas together to create something new, for instance playing a drum (one idea) as quietly as a mouse (another idea).

  3. When young children improvise, they’re instantly involved and engaged in a learning task, whether improvising a way to keep the beat of a song, or improvising a new way to create sound with an instrument.

  4. Through improvisation, children create their own learning, rather than passively receiving information. For instance, when improvising with musical instruments, children construct their own knowledge of the sound of the instrument, its physical properties, and their own capabilities to make sounds with the instrument in various ways.

  5. Improvisation reinforces to children the idea that learning is fun and gratifying in itself.

  6. Improvisation builds young children’s confidence in their ability to share ideas with a group. This confidence is vital to cooperative learning and to school success in general.

  7. Improvisational activities give children practice in respecting and appreciating others’ work. In my experience, children are tremendously interested in observing and listening to their classmates’ ideas.

  8. Improvisational activities help a group of children bond as they create a joyful, beautiful or funny experience together.

  9. Individual students’ improvisations can help teachers to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in order to plan meaningful individualized instruction. We can often observe a student’s abilities and strengths through improvisations that we would not have been able to learn through more formal learning activities.

  10. Improvisation helps children to see themselves as proactive learners and creative thinkers.

In my books and on my website,, I’ve shared hundreds of ideas for music improvisation activities for young children. Here are a couple from my new book, “Shake, Rattle and Roll: Rhythm Activities and More for Active Learning” (Gryphon House, 2015).

My Friend Shaky (Shakers)

Making up silly names adds to the fun as children think of new ways to play the shakers.

Shake your shaker to the beat and sing to the tune of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”:

                 My friend Shaky likes to shaky, shaky,shake,
                My friend Shaky likes to shaky, shaky, shake,
                My friend Shaky likes to shaky, shaky, shake,
                That’s why I call him Shaky!

 Additional verses:

                  My friend Jumpy… (Hold shaker by stem on the floor and make it “jump”)

                 My friend Rubby… (Rub shaker along arm)

                 My friend Tappy… (Gently tap shaker on shoe or knee)

Then ask the children for more silly friends!

Please Clap Your Hands (Movement)

In this activity children can come up with their own ideas for movements. The ASL sign for “please” is made by using your open hand to rub in a circle over your heart. The sign for “thank you” is made by moving your hand out and down, starting near your mouth as though beginning to blow a kiss.

Children may be sitting or standing. Sing to the tune of “Frere Jacques”:

                        Please clap your hands,
                        (Make the sign for “please,” then clap)

                        Please clap your hands,
                        Clap, clap, clap, Clap, clap,clap,
                        Thank you all for clapping,
                        (Make sign for “thank you,” then clap)

                        Thank you all for clapping,
                        Clap, clap, clap, Clap, clap, clap.

Additional verses: Please pat your knees… Please nod your head…
Then have children suggest additional movements.

Helping children make their own music may be the most important part of music education, and easy improvisation activities like these are a fun first step for young learners.


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