Taking Note: Musical Activities to Support Parent-Child Relationships

By Miriam Lense, PhD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
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With schools and daycares closed, many parents are looking for activities to engage in with their young children. As part of the National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab project awarded to the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab in 2018, our Research Lab studies how parent-child musical activities may support families of children with and without developmental disabilities. Findings from our Research Lab, as well as from other scientists and clinicians across the music cognition field, suggests that musical activities may provide a particularly powerful and effective medium for parent-child interactions.

You may have seen—or participated in—the viral videos of neighbors making music together from their balconies and porches. During these difficult circumstances, singing and music making are bringing people together despite being physically apart while practicing social distancing. Musical activities can also support one of the most critical social relationships, that between a parent and child. Social musical experiences are ubiquitous in early parent-child interactions. Studies show that singing and musical play capture and maintain children’s attention and regulate arousal levels in both children and parents. Musical experiences can also support prosocial behaviors such as helping and cooperation.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, our Research Lab has recently conducted a national survey on parent-child musical experiences in ~300 parents of young children (infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) with and without developmental disabilities. We focus on informal musical experiences that occur at home such as how much parents sing to their child or move with their child to music (and not, for example, formal music lessons). Our research, which is in the process of being submitted for publication, finds that on average, families of children with and without developmental disabilities engage in musical activities on a daily basis and use music for a variety of reasons (e.g., to play social games, to soothe their child, and as part of daily routines). Moreover, this research suggests that parent-child musical experiences are associated with more positive parent-child attachment, or the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors parents have about their child and their relationship. This association holds even when controlling for important factors such as parent mental health or time parents spend with their children in non-musical play activities.

Why might musical activities be so frequently used and be effective for supporting the parent-child relationship? Parent-child musical activities naturally involve predictability, enjoyment, emotion regulation, and shared attention in a social play context. These are all elements that contribute to positive parent-child interactions. In this way, musical activities provide a natural toolbox of strategies for parents to use to support their relationship with their children

To learn more about parent-child musical activities, songs, and tips, see the below suggested activities and strategies with links to video examples and visual support materials. If you are interested in participating in an online survey study to help us continue to learn about parent-child musical activities and family well-being, click here.

Here are some musical activities to try at home!

Try setting aside a 5-minute musical play time with your child every day. During the musical play time, focus on being present with and engaging with your child. Click here to access a Home Toolkit with video supports and tips for songs to try with your child. 

1. Share the experience together: Musical games provide an opportunity to share an experience with your child and to provide your child with positive attention by looking at them, singing with or listening to them, and imitating their movements and gestures. Songs with hand gestures or body movements provide a platform for parents to naturally follow their child’s leads during musical games. This shows your child that you are paying attention to them, approve of their activities, and want to be a part of their activities.

Suggested Music Activities:

  • Use a familiar song like Happy and You Know It that your child likes and that you can participate in together. Add additional verses with new motions that your child likes or have your child choose the motions and copy them. For example: If you’re happy and you know it… Jump up and down! Get tickles! Spin in circles!
  • Add variation to a folk song like Rum Sum Sum by singing it fast or slow or doing the hand motions large or small. You and your child can take turns making choices and imitating each other in these changes.

2. Musical games to influence emotions: The main reason people engage with music is because of how it makes them feel. Parent-child music making experiences impact the mood and arousal levels of both children and parents. With lots of changes in schedules and routines during these times, activities that help regulate mood are particularly important.

Suggested Music Activities:

  • Set a routine for singing a lullaby while cuddling your child. Choose a familiar song that your child enjoys. For older preschoolers, they might find it a fun game to pretend to tuck in their parent and sing a lullaby to you.
  • Practice emotions and coping skills through musical games. For example, use the tune of Happy and You Know It to sing about different emotions and what to do when you feel that way for different verses (When you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! When you’re sad, get a hug! When you’re angry, take a breath!). Change your tone of voice and facial expressions to match the emotion. Note that learning these coping strategies in song won’t make your child an expert when the real emotions strike. But it’s a fun game and practicing coping strategies when you’re calm helps them to become more automatic when you need to use them over time.

3. Musical games for pretend play: Songs provide opportunities for pretend play and imaginative play. Some children love pretending and will be excited to use toys or stuffed animals to act out different songs. For other children, pretend play is a harder skill; familiar songs can provide a structure for learning pretend play routines. Some adults also find pretend play to be challenging; songs can help provide a comfortable way to pretend and be silly with your child.

Suggested Song Activities:

  • Use songs that have a narrative that you can act out like We are the Dinosaurs by The Laurie Berkner Band, Fire Truck by Ivan Ulz, or Octopus (Slippery Fish) by Charlotte Diamond.
  • For younger children, many classic nursery rhymes provide opportunities for pretending through song-associated gestures like the different verses of Wheels on the Bus or Baby Shark.

4. Musical games, speech/language development, and pre-academic skills: With schools out, many families are looking to provide learning experiences for their children. Musical games and songs can be a fun way to spend time together that is also educational. Many children’s songs provide opportunities to practice skills like counting, colors, and letters, as well as listening and following directions.

Suggested Song Activities:

  • Incorporate songs into storytime. The classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? By Bill Martin Jr. pairs well with the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. For younger children you can pause to let your child fill in the color or the name of the animal. For older children, take turns singing by following the question and answer pattern in the lyrics. If you’re not seeing friends or extended family members during this time of social distancing, use a fun variation of this song when looking through a photo album or during video chats (e.g., [Child name, Child name] who do you see? I see Grandma looking at me!”).
  • Rhyming skills are important for literacy development. The traditional song Down by the Bay, popularized by Raffi, lets children create their own silly rhymes as they pay attention to letter sounds.
  • Counting is a popular theme in children’s songs. You can count on your fingers or incorporate toys to count on objects as you re-enact songs like Five Little Monkeys, Six Little Ducks, or Ten in the Bed.

Dr. Miriam Lense, PhD, is co-director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamlense.