What Do Young Children Really Need? Ask Old MacDonald


The other day, while singing “Old MacDonald” with a class of three-year-olds, I found myself wondering how many times I’ve sung this song. Must be in the thousands, I thought. Well, I just did some calculations. Multiply approximately ten times a day, three or four days a week, times say fifty weeks a year, for (excuse me while I gulp some coffee, glug glug) years… okay. Turns out to be 749,000.

Wow. That makes me feel as old as… well, you know.

But “Old MacDonald” has been around a lot longer than I have. In fact, archaeologists believe that the song actually predates agriculture. (An early cave painting depicts an old man, a cow, and a tiny figure shouting, “Again!”) So I’m not the first music teacher, or even the first adult, to find herself singing “Old MacDonald” to infinity and beyond.

Do I ever get bored with “Old MacDonald”? Oh, I passed “bored” about (glug, glug) years ago. With time, though, I transcended my boredom and achieved what I can only call a meditative state. Instead of wasting valuable time resenting this song’s slow but inexorable destruction of some of my favorite brain cells, I decided to see what I could learn from this experience.

I learned that “Old MacDonald” satisfies important emotional and developmental needs for young children. For instance:

1. Young children need lots of repetition. Young children need lots of repetition. My students will sing “Old MacDonald” over and over, with unceasing enthusiasm, until I stop them so we can move on to another activity, or until “music time” is over and I need to go to another classroom. If it were up to them, they’d be singing it till the cows come home (heh heh). Oddly enough, although it’s possibly the Number One children’s song of all time, they rarely remember the name. Even when they call out for “Farmer,” “Moo,” or “Old Obama,” though, I know what they mean.

Repetition helps children learn, of course, but it also fills deeper needs. It gives them the self-confidence that comes with knowing something, with mastering something. It gives them a feeling of belonging as they repeat the well-worn words with their classmates. And it relieves stress – for a few minutes they can relax with a familiar activity which is comforting and undemanding. You could say that “Old MacDonald” is the musical equivalent of a teddy bear.

2. “Old MacDonald” gives lots of children a chance to have a turn. Quicker than you can ask, “What’s another animal on the farm?” a roomful of tiny hands fly up (with a “ME! ME!” here and a “ME! ME!” there). In Early Childhood Land, having a turn is a very big deal. Having a turn means you are personally acknowledged by the teacher; your name is called out; everyone listens to you; and in this case, the whole group joins in to sing about the animal you’ve chosen. Having a turn is an affirmation of both your individuality and your membership in the group; you feel valued and valuable. You learn that you can feel safe and accepted while participating and contributing to the group. Whenever possible, I try to go around the circle and give each child a turn. (A major bonus, of course, is that children learn that sometimes, it’s someone else’s turn.)

3. “Old MacDonald” allows, and even encourages, children to be silly. I hear you – they don’t need much encouragement, right? Maybe a better way to put it is that the song allows young children to be themselves, and their natural selves are inclined to be silly much of the time. They like to make silly sounds like “oink” and “quack.” They like to bounce around and flap their wings and make funny faces. And they like to be loud sometimes. Even the most “developmentally appropriate,” “child-centered” school provides limited opportunities for all-out silliness, and rightly so. In early childhood, there’s often a very thin line between silly fun and uncontrollable hysteria. And yet young children have a very real need for activities in which they can be as silly as they wanna be. Not only to let off steam, but to express their joy, their creativity, and their excitement as they explore the world and their own capabilities. A young child’s world is a very exciting place!

Finally, “Old MacDonald” has taught me that what may seem boring to me isn’t boring to them. Songs I’ve sung almost every day of my adult life, simple, repetitive, monotonous songs like “Old MacDonald,” are my students’ favorite songs. I need to resist the been-there-done-that, same-old-same-old attitude we grownups are prone to, and dive right into their fresh, bright, noisy, sometimes scary but always amazing world.

Often, when I start to sing “Old MacDonald” with a group of young children, I’ll hear one of their little voices chirping, “Oh, I LOVE this song!” Singing along with a favorite song is one of life’s most sustaining little joys. And helping children to appreciate that joy is a privilege. Old MacDonald, I salute you. Long may you farm!

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 2017 issue of TEMPO, the magazine of the New Jersey Music Educators Association.

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