From the way young children react when they see me enter their classroom for a music enrichment class, you’d think I was driving an ice cream truck with Dora the Explorer. They’re running up to hug me, yelling my name, and jumping and down – often all three at the same time! Why all the enthusiasm? Believe me, I’m not particularly charismatic or entertaining. In fact, I’m simply a pretty good music teacher. I have to admit, it’s not really me they’re excited about. I figured out a long time ago why young children anticipate my classes so eagerly – it’s because they know they’ll have the opportunity to express themselves freely. They’ll be able to invent, improvise and create without being told how they “should” sing, dance, or play music.
When I first landed on Preschool Planet, I thought I had to have almost word-for-word lesson plans to be “professional” and “prepared.” Inevitably, my plans would be derailed by children whose curiosity and creativity didn’t fit into my “do this, don’t do that” instructions. After a time (longer than I’d care to admit), I realized that maybe I should try something different. I began observing my young students in order to integrate their interests and behavior into my music and dance activities. In other words, I started to teach based on the way children learned.
I found that they got bored and disengaged when songs had too many words – so I did shorter songs that we could repeat with children’s ideas for variations. For instance, instead of singing the whole song of “On Top of Spaghetti,” I’d sing the first verse, ending with a big sneeze. (I’d also noticed preschoolers love to pretend to sneeze!) Then we’d sing it again, changing the words “spaghetti” and “meatball” to whatever foods they thought would be funny. So we’d sing “On top of my ice cream, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor hot dog, when somebody sneezed! Ah- CHOO!” and so on. And so on. And so on. Because another thing I’d learned is that young children love repetition!
Over the years I’ve designed hundreds of activities in which young children can volunteer their ideas for improvising lyrics, ways to play rhythm instruments, ways to use props such as scarves or coffee-filter “snowflakes,” and ways to move their bodies in dance. Do they get overexcited and overstimulated? Of course. This is something I need to anticipate and manage with ground rules like “Raise your hand quietly if you have an idea”; gentle reminders like “Let’s give some of our other friends a turn”; and go-to calming, relaxing activities to have on hand for those times when things get too wild. Yes, chaos is an ever-present possibility when working with preschoolers, but with a little advance thought, and the flexibility to lower the pace or intensity of an activity when needed, these activities go pretty smoothly. And the rewards are SO worth it!
Our educational system does little to develop and encourage creative thinking. In fact, “Creativity scores have significantly decreased since 1990,” states Kyung Hee Kim, Ph.D., an educational psychologist at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, who has conducted long-term research on American students. The preschool years are a perfect time to start cultivating children’s creative thinking skills, before they’re deluged with academic instruction. The arts in general, and improvisation in particular, stretch imaginations and inspire unconventional, inventive responses. Improvisational activities are literally lessons in creativity.
These activities are one of the most rewarding parts of my work with young children. I’ve shared hundreds of my original activities in my books. Of course, the best activities are those you invent yourself, based on the interests and abilities of the young children in your class – no one knows them as well as you do! And there’s a special joy in sharing your own unique creativity with young children, who will always respond enthusiastically and in surprising, original ways! Nothing feels as great as when a formerly shy or quiet child raises their hand excitedly and shouts, “I have an idea!”