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Rhythm Instrument Activities for Toddlers

How To Improve Your Toddler's Development With Rhythm Instruments

From the moment they can grasp and hold an object, babies love to bang, shake and throw things on the floor. Research shows they do this to learn about their bodies' capabilities, to explore their environment and to test the properties of physical objects. But most of all, they do this to experience the joy of creating sounds. What a wonderful feeling it is when they discover that they can make noise in so many ways! It's a feeling of wonder, delight and power.

"As [caregivers], our goal must be to respect and satisfy children's need to make noise, while gently guiding them toward expressing themselves musically," says Abigail Flesch Connors, an early childhood music specialist. "Rhythm instruments provide a uniquely effective medium to bridge this gap."

As most early childhood educators know, music is very important for young children. Music has been documented in playing a role in the development of many kinds of intelligences, and also offers children the opportunity to practice socializing, creativity and self-expression. Connors' new book, 101 Rhythm Instrument Activities for Young Children (Gryphon House, 2004), invites every child to participate in this musical learning process.

Why Rhythm Instruments?

Connors has a number of well-founded reasons:

  • With rhythm instruments, children can create their own music. No CD necessary!
  • Rhythm instruments don't require singing. Although Connors encourages singing with her students, she admits that not all children will participate in singing activities. "Some are just naturally shy or self-conscious," she says. "There are many reasons why a child may not feel comfortable singing in a group."
  • Rhythm instrument activities are simple for children to learn and use. "Most of them involve simply copying one motion at a time," says Connors.
  • With rhythm instruments there is no right or wrong way. "[This] leaves plenty of room for individuality," Connors explains.
  • Rhythm instruments involve the body in keeping a beat and feeling rhythm. This helps young children build spatial awareness, explore movement, expand their movement repertoire and vocabulary and build their understanding of concepts such as up and down, over and under, high and low, soft and loud, short and long, in and out and stop and go.

The selections in Connors' book involve using instruments such as rhythm sticks, shakers, cymbals, tambourines, sand blocks, jingle bells and triangles. Her ideas will delight 2- to 6-year-olds as they are invited to create sounds of ocean waves, rainstorms and horses galloping, as well as play along with their favorite songs.

"Music is a vital part of children's lives, and when they can make music themselves it is immensely satisfying for them," says Connors. "It's an incredible joy to see children discover the music within themselves!"

Activities from 101 Rhythm Instrument Activities

Freeze Dance With Bells
Bells add an extra (loud) dimension to the freeze dance game. Ask children to attach bells around their wrists. Then put on some fun dance music.

Everyone dances until you stop the music. When the music stops, the children "freeze" in place like statues. When you restart the music, everyone dances again. Continue for a few minutes.

The bells make the game noisier (which is always fun) and also make "freezing" more of a challenge, since their jingling will give them away if they continue moving!

Experiments With Shakers (or Maracas)
Introduce this activity by asking children how they think shakers make a sound. Tell them that they're going to explore how different things can make different sounds when shaken in containers.

Use a clean, empty, plastic peanut butter jar with a top for the container. Bring out various items to fill the jar, and encourage children to try shaking them in the container. (Pass each new "invention" around the circle for everyone to try.) Some ideas for materials to use include:

  • Dried beans
  • Rice
  • Dry cereal such as oat rings
  • Cottonballs
  • Jingle bells
  • Pennies
  • Small plastic building bricks

Ask children to describe the sounds they hear. Which are loudest? Softest? Nicest? Most interesting?

They may want to vote on their favorite sound. Also, they may have ideas for other materials to use. This could turn into an ongoing project!

Safety note: If children are still putting things into their mouths, supervise this activity very closely.

Animal Footsteps
This activity explores the variety of sounds you can get from a drum when you vary the rhythm, the speed and the force with which you play it.

Children should be sitting in a circle. Pass the drum around so that each child has a turn to make "animal footsteps" on the drum. Each child can choose a different animal. Here are some ideas:

  • Elephant – pound drum with fist
  • Mouse – "scurry" fingertips on the drum
  • Rabbit – make fingers "hop" on the drum
  • Horse – pat a galloping rhythm on the drum
  • Snake – glide one finger around on the drum
  • Cat – use soft, slow taps

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