Songwriting with Kids
At what age can a child write a song?
With the right structure and support, children of any age can experience the excitement and satisfaction of songwriting!
This past week, I led a songwriting activity with my preschool groups. We had so much fun exploring the topic of sea life while creating our own version of a familiar song! In this month's blog post, I share that process with you to provide a glimpse into how a music therapy intervention is structured and implemented in an early childhood setting.
While adults often feel intimidated when someone mentions songwriting, kids are natural songwriters and usually take to the idea quickly and with much enthusiasm. Songwriting provides opportunities for creativity and self-expression within an organized structure. How much structure you provide depends on the children's ages and abilities, whether it is a group or one-on-one activity, and the goal or purpose of the intervention. The process I outline below includes lots of structure, but can be easily adapted to include less structure for older kids or smaller groups.
In the Ocean Songwriting Intervention
This intervention was designed for use with a large, inclusive preschool group of 12-16 students. It is a highly-structured activity that allows children of all abilities to be successful.
A variety of goal areas can be addressed, including:
Social and Emotional Development- Turn taking, following directions, flexibility and exploration
Early Literacy Skills- Sequencing and categorization, picture/word identification, parts of speech
Motor Skills- Moving body rhythmically with control
Backing track to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." While I almost always use live rather than recorded accompaniment in early childhood sessions, this activity uses a lot of visual props, which means I need to keep my hands free and give up my guitar. I found a karaoke version of this song on Amazon Music that worked well for this purpose.
Visual Aides. I often create picture cards for use in early childhood settings. These serve several purposes. Pictures are a form of symbolic communication that kids use from a very young age. When paired with printed words, as I did for this intervention, kids start to associate letters and words with pictures. These are important early literacy skills. Cards can be laminated and placed on a board or easel.
I created 4 cards for each of 4 different categories in this song. Place (Where)- Ocean, Pool, Pond, Sea Cave; Description- Blue, Cold, Muddy, Slimy; Animal (Who)- Octopus, Clownfish, Dolphin, Jellyfish; and Action (What)- Sleeps, Eats, Jumps, Swims. (You can make up any number of your own examples within these categories). Each picture/word was cut out separately and laminated, making a square card. I like to use magnetic strips and a folding tabletop whiteboard easel to display the cards.
Introduce the idea of songwriting to the group. Ask if anyone has ever written a song before. Share a quick overview of what will happen in this activity.
Teach the concept of verse and chorus. The chorus of a song is the part that we all sing together and come back to between each verse. The verses are the part of the song that we are going to create together. (The fact that verses always follow a chorus is a sequencing concept).
Teach the chorus to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (the part that goes "A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh..."). It is fun to add hand motions to this part. Since this song went with a sea life themed session, I had us put our palms together and make motions like our hands were fish swimming. Practice the chorus with the backing track and tell the students that we will start with the chorus and sing it again between each verse. (This is where movement/motor skills are incorporated into the song. Singing this fun chorus together is also an opportunity to practice and explore various speech sounds.)
Introduce the first verse by putting one card from each of the four categories on the board, in the order used in the song (starting with the top left). This introduces the concept of "reading" from left to right and top to bottom. For example, put up the cards for Ocean, Cold, Dolphin, and Sleeps. Then, sing through the verse (to the tune of "Lion Sleeps Tonight"): In the ocean, the cold ocean, the dolphin sleeps tonight. Point to each picture as you sing that word. Sing it through a second time with the backing track and encourage the class to sing along with you. Then sing the chorus!
Now the children have the opportunity to write versus themselves. With a large group, I give each child the opportunity to select one card. For the most structured approach, display two cards from one category to a child and have them select one. For example, ask the first child to chose where the verse takes place, and present the "Ocean" and "Pool" cards. Once a card is selected, put it in the upper left hand corner of the board. Have the next child chose a description word and place that card after the first. Continue until four kids have had the opportunity to select cards and the verse is complete. Sing through the verse with the entire group, pointing to the cards as you sing, followed by the chorus. This process can be repeated until each child has the chance to write a part of the song.(Many goals are addressed here, from taking turns, to sequencing, to introducing parts of speech [who, what, where].)
One of the things I love about this intervention is how easy to adapt it is. I even used this same songwriting concept when Skyping with my 6 and 8 year old nephews this week. The first several times through the song, we used the picture cards and the structure outlined above. They then asked if we could sing about other places, which sparked a conversation about other parts of the earth. Jungle, desert, rainforest, and city were just some of their ideas. With the 8 year old, I was able to ask him specifically for parts of speech ("What is an adjective we can use for the desert?") and have him write down the words, making cards for his younger brother to arrange to fit our "sentences."