Positive relationships

Sing with children, even if you’re bad at it

A non-singer’s guide to singing in early education
October 20, 2021
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 In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story explores how you can bring more singing into early education, if you don’t feel very comfortable singing in the first place.
  • We’ll look at baby steps you can take, and activities that will help you think of singing as another form of play, rather than a performance.
  • As you’ll learn, the idea of being ‘bad’ at singing is a wonky grown-up idea. Let’s follow children’s lead instead, and focus more on the sense of play, creativity and community.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re bad at singing, this next song’s for you.

Lots of us grew up with the idea that we’re bad at singing. As adults, we’re shy about it. You might feel like you shouldn’t sing, or that you should at least give a disclaimer beforehand. And if that’s the case, it can be frustrating to read blog articles about how great singing is for children’s brain development, or how it helps them handle daily transitions. 

What use is that knowledge if you don’t feel comfortable singing in the first place?

The good news is, all of us can sing. Embracing that just requires you to see that there’s a lot more to singing than delivering Beyoncé-level vocals. 

Luckily, there’s no better place to do that than a room full of toddlers.

Zoë Challenor, the founder and director of B’Opera, directs singing workshops for babies, toddlers and educators. As a classically-trained vocalist, she’s got years of experience performing for both grown-ups and young children. She says babies are the better audience.

“They’re so much nicer than adults,” she laughs. “The Early Years is not a judgmental age group. There’s just something so lovely about singing to an audience that is truly listening, without any notion of judgment and criticism.”

So how can we take a page from children’s songbooks, and learn to sing without apology? How can we quit worrying about whether we’re good at singing, and just focus on how to have fun with it?

That starts with thinking about singing as play, not performance.

Boy playing ukulele, singing with his mother and sister

Who said we’ve got to be ‘good’ at singing, anyway?

By the standards of the Cambridge Opera Journal, most three-year-olds aren’t ‘good’ singers. But they’re probably having more fun singing than any adult in the room. 

In that sense, children have a more open-minded understanding of singing than most grown-ups. They see singing as a form of play, removed from any self-criticism or second-guessing. If we can follow their example, it’s easier to shed our own reservations about our singing voices.

“Stop thinking about singing as a way to make music, and instead think about it as a way to build community. Singing creates fun, joyful interactions, in a playful way that children appreciate,” explains Dr. Wendy Sims, who studies singing in early education at the University of Missouri School of Music.

For a grown-up, real-world example of how this works, you could look at chants at a sports stadium. Nobody’s too concerned about delivering a sparkling choral performance there. Instead, it’s clear that the shared experience, that sense of togetherness, is the point of singing.

Early education is the perfect environment to rethink your relationship to singing. We’ve just got to follow children’s example, in their willingness to experiment with song, and enjoy the shared experience that comes from that. Professor Graham Welch, Chair of Music Education at University College London, says this element of playfulness is essential.

“Young children don’t judge anyone’s singing. They just want the opportunity to use their voices, and explore that with you. In my experience, they may not always feel confident in their own singing voices, but they’ll have a go anyway. And that’s what we want to model and encourage: that curiosity, and that willingness to try.”

Professor Graham Welch

The big ideas

Why there’s just no substitute for singing

There’s something about singing that connects with young ears like nothing else.

In the scope of this article, we can’t cover all the developmental benefits of singing for children. If you’re looking to learn more on that, you might check out the Zero to Three Foundation. The thing is, these benefits just don’t bloom in the same way with recorded music. 

Here’s what makes that shared experience of singing unique:

  • Singing builds community. Singing allows everyone to work toward a common goal, and to feel the shared excitement of building a song together. That song, whatever it may be, is yours — and that’s something to be proud of. That sense of ownership and creativity is hard to recreate with recorded music.
  • Children are hardwired to like singing. As we’ve explored before, young brains are naturally inclined to enjoy bouncy, sing-song voices. It’s soothing and attention-grabbing, in part because of the eye contact and facial expressions you get from singing.
  • Singing lets you experiment, and to trust each other. There’s an aspect of singing that requires you to take a creative risk, and to be a little bit vulnerable. That can seem scary — but overcoming it builds a sense of trust that you just can’t get from Spotify.

Making the effort to sing with children is worth it. You don’t need to belt out an operetta for them, either — you can weave songs into the real-life, day-to-day doings of your early education setting. Maybe that’s a tune for clean-up time, or a little vocal activity you share during circle time.

Let’s look at more ways to do that just below.

Learning to play with your voice

Unlearning a lifetime of sing-shyness takes time. But if you’d like to take some baby steps, it’s helpful to just play with your voice. 

For starters, it’s best to just get comfortable with different ways to project our voice, and to share that with others. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re good at singing or not — just that you’re trying something new.

Adult and kids clapping hands

You can try these activities yourself, but they’re also great to do as a group with children. 

  • Make some sound effects. What sound does a cow make? What about the wind in the trees? What about a really, really loud cow? Storytime is a perfect opportunity to play around with these sounds.
  • Trace a line with your voice. Draw a wiggly line on a sheet of paper, and follow the line with your finger, raising the pitch of your voice up and down with the rise and fall of your line. You could also spell your name with your finger, and use the pitch or volume of your voice to match the motion of your finger. 
  • Say a sentence in five different ways, or a word in ten different ways. Play around with your tone, your pitch, or which syllables you emphasize. You can go around in a circle and take turns as a class. If it devolves into silliness, good! That’s fun, and there’s no wrong way to sing.
  • Say a word looooonger, Louder! or quieter than usual. We use our voices expressively all the time anyway — where’s the boundary between singing and fancy talk?  You might take turns doing this with a vocabulary word of the week, or with your names.
  • Get to know your face muscles. Do a big yawn like a lion, or scrunch your face up teeny like a mouse! Then, give your jaw and cheek muscles a little massage. Playing with our facial muscles and expressions is a great way to warm up for singing, and an easy opportunity to make noises along the way.

Mother playing ukelele for her daughter

Best practices for singing with children

If you’re just starting out with bringing singing into your classroom, you may as well pick up a couple good habits from the get-go. Here are three tips to keep in mind as you start singing with children:

  1. Don’t say you’re bad at singing. Children learn what we model for them, whether or not we intend to teach it. If you say you’re not a good singer, or act shy and apologetic about singing, children will learn that it’s something to be insecure about. Remember, children don’t care how you’re singing — what’s important is that you’re sharing the experience together.
  2. Explore songs from children’s home cultures. You could reach out to parents to ask for simple songs to try, or to share an example of how communities use song in different cultures. Not only does this help form stronger bonds with families, but it also gives you a bigger library of songs and musical traditions that reflect the children in your care.
  3. Think of singing as a teaching tool, not a performance. As Zoë Challenor explains, “it’s not about what you sing, but the intention behind your singing. What feeling, or what experience, do you want to give to children through song? That might be love, soothing, or a sense of togetherness,” she says. “With young children, they’re not thinking about whether you’re ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It just matters that you’re trying.”
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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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