Guest Blog - June O'Sullivan MBE

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On the 3rd of September we launched Musical Matters, a partnership between the Blackheath Conservatoire and London Early Years Foundation where we will develop and deliver a new musical repertoire for small children.  Sadly, in this world of narrow focused education with an emphasis on the three Rs, there is a failure to recognise the importance of how we achieve confidence and competence in the three Rs. Consequently, the potential of music in early years’ settings is often unrecognised or at least undervalued and the contrasting attitudes of staff towards mark-making and music-making are striking.

We are not alone, across the pond I read Dr. Nadine Gaab of Harvard University was reflecting on a similar pattern in the US, noting that many schools were cutting music programmes and spending more and more time on test preparation, even though the research findings suggested that musical training may actually help set up children for a better academic future. My view is a more simplistic one, but which is supported by much research. Music is innate. It brings joy and children glory in their singing. It is a happy time.

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According to Colwyn Trevarthen one of the UK’s foremost researchers of young children’s innate musicality (who I once had the pleasure of hearing talk at Roehampton University where I did an MA in Early Childhood and Primary Studies)  shows that we can trace singing back about 200,000 years ago and in fact archaeologists suggest that musical communication preceded articulate human speech. Babies are born musical and they join in quite skilfully when they hear music. They respond to mothers' songs, action games and dances, and instrumental and recorded music of more popular 'folk' kinds long before they can speak. He recognised babies “communicative musicality and their willingness to be social as they lead playful opportunities with an engaged adult like two dance partners”.  I don’t know what he would have made of the recent Channel 4 programme Train Your Baby Like A Dog!

During the launch event we had a very interesting talk from Ruth Churchill Dower from Early Arts. I was very pleased not having seen Ruth for a while. A long time ago I was on the Board of Early Arts and it was through Ruth that I met Sydney Thornbury - who was at the time the CEO of the Conservatoire - and together we set up a LEYF nursery in the back of the Conservatoire. 

Ruth is keenly interested in creativity with a new book out soon and continued the theme of babies noting that from at least 22 weeks’ gestation, the foetus in the womb, is experiencing music and other sounds. At this early stage the auditory system is fully functioning, and the brain is already processing sound. Amongst the body sounds (the mother’s heartbeat and digestive system) her voice and sounds in the outside world are all influencing the unborn baby’s brain.

Ruth referenced an Italian research project where pregnant mothers and their partners regularly sang and played music to their unborn child. Very soon after the birth those same parents sang or played the familiar music and videoed the new-born’s response. Every baby reacted to the sound – some stayed still and opened their eyes wide, others relaxed, and half closed their eyes, some turned their heads towards the music source. The project continued for several years and confirmed the power of music, especially the mother’s singing, to calm, to cheer and to assist falling asleep an all the time strengthening the parental and adult bonds of attachment and attunement.

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Anyone who works with babies can see that and using music and singing to enhance their understanding brings a calm and quiet to a child very quickly. Singing to babies is instinctive and now lo and behold now we have the research to prove it! Take a group of 18month olds, ask them to tidy up, hmmm but sing the tidy up song and bingo everything is back in the baskets with joy and fun. Why?  Because when they move and sing, children feel good about themselves. Music is a vehicle for self-expression in ways no other communication can achieve. Singing together deepens children’s sense of community and introduces melodies, language, and rhythms from different cultures, different languages and varied musical genres. I am Irish and can break into a chorus of The Fields of Athenry at the drop of a hat!

We are using all ranges of music from classical to jazz, African to Chinese and ballet to hip-hop. Lat week one of the nurseries hosted their Earls Court Glastonbury!

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Not just that there is emerging information from neuro scientists that making music actively engages the brain’s synapses when young children participate in music-based activities. Apparently, their muscles, senses, and intellect are engaged simultaneously, and they are exercising their brains in ways they rarely do. Researchers have found that musical training improves the way children’s brains process the spoken word especially children who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and are high-risk for becoming poor readers may benefit from early musical training. It also helps children memories especially when they learn to use musical instruments and sharpens their executive functioning which is their ability to organise new thoughts, ideas and information into a clear sense of purpose. Their thinking is flexible and if one idea doesn’t work, an alternate is right behind it. Watch it as a child tackles a puzzle, creates a building using blocks, or dresses themselves efficiently. Given the brain is creating synaptic connections at a rate of trillions a second up to the age of three, then music is essential and can even reshape the way the brain is operating.

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As someone who runs a social enterprise with a purpose to ensure the best quality education for all children, but especially targeting children who live in poverty or experiencing disadvantage, our pedagogy must be built on from the knowledge of what shapes successful education. For us, language is key and what helps language develop; music! Therefore, our research partnership with the Conservatoire is based on identifying best practice and strongly embedding it across the organisation.  Here are some actions Louise, one of our LEYF pedagogical heroes, shared with me as a consequence of her involvement in the partnership.

  • We will increase planned and routine musical  activities in every room of the nursery to extend the childrens creativity and confidence.
  • We will share the theories about the importance of using our bodies and our voices to express our musicality not simply rely on musical instruments.
  • We will increase children’s awareness of their own physical capability and wellbeing through music and help them express how they are feeling.
  • We will use music and singing to support those children who have difficulties with language and learning and have identified SEND.
  • We will increase our repetoire of music from all different cultures and genres to promote cultural capital and multi-generational approach.
  • We will develop a trip and outing system and use music and singing as part of the planning.
  • We will build a music board to explain to parents the positive benefits of music for children’s learning and self expression which enhances confidence.
  • At staff meetings, we will discuss the importance of music and its impact on the children emotional and cognitive development.
  • We will be Brave and have FUN and then the children will too.

Once we are confident, we will share what we have learned. Music creates harmony with others, and we hope we can make it the heartbeat of our shared community. We will support parents to better understand why music and singing matters and broaden our musical relationships across the communities where we live and work. Then we will share it across the sector.  For many it may simply be a confirmation of already good practice but for others it will lead to tweaks to existing practice and a refresh of songs and musical resources and a clearer articulation of the power of music to supporting small children’s development.

Our Top Tips for Emerging Teachers!

  • Make it fun, focus on process, participation and playfulness, not achievement.
  • Create a repertoire of songs, new and old. Practise them in the car. Don’t worry if you can’t carry a tune, the children will out-sing you and love you for leading and participating.
  • Make up new songs! Take a familiar tune and modify the lyrics. Bend the tunes to your needs.
  • Include ample opportunity for movement and physical expression. You use your body to learn enjoy rhythmic stomping, clapping, moving, dancing and stretching.
  • It’s great to have a box full of instruments. But we can manage without them.  anything can be a musical prop, and patting can be as good as drumming. Shakers can be made using recycled water bottles full of beans or paper towel rolls and carefully chosen CDs can support movement activity and games.
  • Build in sufficient time for music and singing; don’t rush.

June O’Sullivan MBE

Chief Executive, The London Early Years Foundation





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