Some of you know that I teach Music Together® classes in Delmar, Troy and Brunswick, NY. These classes are for families with children ages birth through 4. There are also classes offered for slightly older kids and a guitar class for adults. Most of the classes are mixed-age classes with a wide range of ages in many of the classes. I love my work and can't imagine doing something else. It usually doesn't even feel like work at all. I sing and dance with families 5 days a week. What could be better than that?
Invariably, I get questioned every semester about appropriate ages for these classes. My answer is always the same. The earlier you start your child in a class, and the longer you stay with it, the more they will get out of it. A child who starts as an infant is soaking in all of the music, feeling the rhythm in their body, listening intently and staring at all of the activity around them. It may not look like they are getting much out of it because they can't participate yet, but they are getting a very rich experience. You can tell by watching their reactions to the music at home. An infant will often stop crying when the CD is played and start looking around them. They may start moving their arms or legs when the music starts. Babies start their learning experience in utero. In Music Together, I don't teach children music. Rather, I create an organic learning environment in which they can learn at their own pace and in their own way.
We played rhythm sticks in class today, and I watched one little girl try to stand the sticks up on end only to have them fall over. She tried a few more times until she figured out that they wouldn't stand on their own. Because I, and her mother, stepped back from the teaching role, she was able to learn that lesson on her own. We never know what lesson will be learned which is why we don't try to teach. With babies, we may not even know what lessons they are learning. I know that children who start class as infants often talk earlier than older siblings who did not take an early class, and they are often more social. When I ask parents what they think their child is getting out of class, the parents of infants are often stumped. You can always look for recognition of songs, excitement when the music is played, increased facial expressions, cooing with the music and more. In class, I often point out the babies that cry or fuss or coo in the same key that we are singing in. They often match pitch at a very early age.
So, what about older kids? Parents often start their children early and take them out when they're around 3-years old. Those kids might be more active, starting to be a little disruptive in class, or they might be engaged in other extra-curricular activities such as swim lessons or a sport. Some of them will start pre-school, making schedules more complicated. It always makes me sad to lose these older kids. Most times, they are finally feeling completely comfortable in class and at the perfect age to start participating fully. Three and four-year olds are an important part of the class. They've become the leaders. You can see all the little ones watching and following the lead of the older kids. Younger children will get more out of watching the older children than watching the adults, including their parents. It's a win-win. The older ones learn leadership skills, and the younger ones learn from them.
Older children often become more physically active, wandering around more, even running. There is a "no running" rule in class that can be difficult to enforce, but it's good for them to have to follow rules, and they usually learn quickly. Although, it can be difficult for a parent to have to be chasing and stopping them frequently, I'm always available with tips to help with that dilemma. The music is good for them, so it's well worth it to hang in there. They do get through it, just like everything else. With patience, perserverance and continued participation, every child can be drawn back into an activity. I try to remind parents to keep singing no matter what. The singing itself draws them in. They respond to the sound of your voice. If you go running after them, it becomes a chase game. If you stop singing, it leaves a noticable hole. Remember, your job is to be the participant, modeling for your wayward child.
If a child has been in class since they were a baby, they may be repeating a collection. This is so valuable for them. The first time around, they just soaked it in, unable to remember much of it later because the storage facility in their brain is not yet developed. By the time they are three, they have the capability to store memories and, the good news is, the new memories can attach themselves to the old ones and file them in the appropriate place. Parents are often amazed at their child's ability to remember all of the songs from a CD they listened to when they were tiny. The brain and it's functions are amazing, aren't they?
In conclusion, Music Together has done extensive research, shared with all of its teachers, on child development. The mixed-age model is done purposefully because it provides the best learning environment for children. The birth through 4 age span was intentionally chosen as well. And, I've seen for myself that it really works. So, if you're in a music class with an older child, please hang in there. If you are expecting a baby or have a newborn, consider joining a class. It's one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your child. There are Music Together centers all over the world. Find one near you.