Music for Children

By Kalani • January 28th, 2011

We all made music as children, sing-song melodies seem to flow freely from our youngest music makers. Just watch a child play and you will likely see a natural tendency to skip, rather than walk, sing words and phrases, and generally 'play' through the day. This very musical way of being is an indication that human are created as 'musical beings.' Music for Children could be best thought of as Music by Children.

As adults, we are sometimes lucky enough to be asked, invited, and given the opportunity to make music with children. Sometimes we're in a teacher role, but even then it helps to remember who the 'professionals' are when it comes to play. Children sometimes need support and encouragement to play music, but from my experience, what they need most is someone with whom to share, to listen, to play with.

One of my goals when making music with children is to follow their lead. I know that they know how to play and they do it much better than I do. The goal with music making is not so much to tell them what to do, but to guide them towards more possibilities, giving them more options, more skills, and more choices. Once that is done, a reductive approach might be taken to guide young musicians towards making choices, formalizing an idea, developing a theme, creating a larger piece from several smaller ideas, etc.

The process of music making is an experimental one. One of the biggest mistakes I have made (and see others make) is to enter into music making with an idea of what you want it to be. Sometimes we have something we learned - something that we felt was really great (It was!). We want to share it with the children so we start off by teaching it to them. What we forget is that children have their own culture of learning - mostly through improvisation, experimentation, imagination, and being totally in-the-moment.

The 'in-the-moment-ness' of the child-spirit may not align with the linear plans of the adult. So, what happens? Sometimes the children get "corrected," "controlled," "confined," and ultimately "confused." They don't understand why they can't just play. "Did I do it wrong?" "Why is my teacher (or parent) frowning at me?"

Children will sometimes subjugate their personal impulses, desires, and needs to those of an authority figure in order to 'make them happy.' If this happens, the child may learn that her natural play instincts are not to be trusted. She will question her impulse to sing out, to skip across the room, to bang on a drum. She might even convince herself that no one really wants to hear her play at all. Does this sound like some adults you know?

Children need to be supported in their musical efforts, but what they really need, more than that, is someone to play with, to listen to their ideas, to say "Wow! - That's Cool!" Adults need this too - and you can be one of those people who helps re-connect people with their child-like playfulness. It's not difficult, but sometimes it's challenging - to remember that music is about play, and play happens in the present moment. Some things to keep in mind when making music with children:

  • Invite more than you instruct.
  • Ask more than you tell.
  • Listen, then listen.
  • Say 'Yes' often.
  • Provide instruction when asked.
  • Allow for tangents. They're the branches.
  • Allow things to fall apart. This creates opportunity.
  • Be grateful for the opportunity.

The principle of play and the above  ideas, are at the core of the DCM approach. For more information and resources for creating nurturing, person-centered musical experiences for all ages, explore the DCM site and read the  book, Together in Rhythm by Kalani.

For more: Visit the following websites:

The American Orff-Schulwerk Association
Music Together
The American Music Therapy Association



Establishing clear boundaries before the start of play will avoid many (not all) scenarios that place the child in conflict with an adult regarding their play.

Young children (toddlers for example) do not have the wisdom to establish boundaries for themselves and therefore can create situations that can unintentionally harm themselves or others. Skipping or running through a room with chair-backs at face level may be fun but is inviting a face-plant into the chair and a over-all bad experience for the child.

Having spent the past 2 years working with 120 preschoolers twice per week conducting music/play/movement sessions, I have seen the above example first hand.

Older kids operate the same as their younger brothers and sister counterparts as some play can morph into situations of unintended consequence. Dialog prior to the activity may help reduce what starts out as an innocent game of tapping each others boomwhackers (to make cool tones) from turning into a sword fight, but it may not eliminate it.

Clear intent on the front end of the play session will definitely reduce the need to blow the whistle and throw a big buzz kill on the session if things start to morph into something wonky. 🙂

Great article Kalani.

Pete Ellison
One World Rhythm


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