While music in early childhood classrooms — the nursery rhymes, the good morning songs — lay the groundwork for literacy development, singing and songwriting can also be used to build an inclusive, multicultural classroom.
As a pre-K teacher, singer-songwriter Mariam Dahbi found music to be an incredible learning tool — and not just because singing along is fun. Dahbi also found that music was a powerful way to reflect the identities of the children in her classroom.
“Music is such a wonderful medium for inclusion and communicating across different cultures because it excites everybody and so it reduces barriers,” says Dahbi, a Ph.D. student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education conducting research as part of a team that seeks to better understand the ways in which early childhood educators use music in the classroom. “That means it’s easier to get [students] to create and share whatever they feel is representing their ideas, thoughts, and feelings.”
Indeed, preliminary survey data from the research team — which includes HGSE professor Meredith Rowe; McGill University's Gigi Luk; and researchers at The Rowe Lab at HGSE, Anna Kirby, Sarah Surrain, Julie Cusano, and Shan Zhang — suggests that preschool educators with children who are dual-language learners (and speak more than one language at home) in their classes reported using music more often than those educators without these students in their classrooms.
Here, Dahbi offers five ways educators can use music to not only spark creativity, but also promote multilingualism and build an inclusive classroom culture:
1. Introduce children to different kinds of music from a variety of cultures and traditions.
As a preschool teacher, Dahbi gave her students options when it was time to listen to or sing a song. She was always surprised by their choices because they often chose songs that, while still about preschool topics like shapes and colors, sounded like singer-songwriter tunes played on the radio. In fact, research has shown that young children tend to be much freer in their musical tastes, making this age an excellent time to introduce students to different kinds of musical traditions.
2. Incorporate other languages into class songs.
Many teachers use songs as a way of greeting children in the morning and these songs could easily be adapted to incorporate phrases in other languages. Because these songs are sung every morning, the routine helps ingrain the welcoming, inclusive message in the class culture. “It’s great because kids can hear their own language in the first activity they do in the morning which is about welcoming everybody,” says Dahbi. “Kids who may be learning English or who don’t speak English at home can feel included and honored. It could be a conversation starter about languages.”
3. Let students create music and musical instruments.
- Having children write their own music or lyrics, or generate their own rhythms and sounds, helps build a strong sense of self. “Creating a song is, in a sense, helping kids to create an identity and telling everyone that you are unique,” Dahbi says. To strengthen the sense of community, she recommends allowing time for children to share their songs and learn what each other has created.
- Children can experiment with creating their own musical instruments. While some schools may be able to buy instruments for the classroom, building a guitar out of a cardboard box and rubber bands or tapping on water glasses and noting how the pitch changes as the glass gets emptier is not only fun, but also a quick lesson in basic physics.
4. Involve families.
While many educators have songs that they use, in a multilingual classroom, it can help reduce barriers and make students feel welcome to hear something familiar. One way to do this it to bring in something that is already familiar to children. Partner with families to translate a song, like a clean-up or line-up song, into another language or ask families to bring songs into the classroom. Invite parents or students to help teach the class to sing the song.
5. Compile a repertoire of useful, multilingual songs around curriculum and vocabulary.
Many preschools use thematic units of curriculum and using music can help children retain information and absorb content. Having a thematic repertoire of songs — about topics like shapes, colors, transportation — can help support learning. Be sure to also include songs in other languages on these topics. Not only does this include English language learners who may be unfamiliar with the academic language around a topic, it might spark interesting conversations about vocabulary words as children pick up on the similarities and differences across languages.