Singing with Children During Difficult Times

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE.

There is no question that we are living in difficult times. It is during challenging circumstances that music can bring solace when we are feeling stressed, isolated and alone. It helps us feel less socially disconnected. The child of 2020 should have exposure to the songs that can evoke warm memories, pull on heart strings and make us laugh while we learn. I believe in the capacity of children and in the competence of educators. I know you will find a way to bring the joy of music to the lives of children. Singing is an essential part of childhood and of growing up. According to Welch (2001) even if there were no music in schools, children would still sing because it is a basic human behaviour. It is a natural outcome of the way that our brains and bodies are designed and function. There is melody around us from the moment that we enter the world, whether experienced ‘live’ from the sounds of other living things such as animals, older children and adults or through the songs, chants and finger plays of childhood!

I have been taking a lyrical and melodic wonderful trip down memory lane remembering the songs, chants and finger plays not only from my youth but from the time when my own children were young. I am also drawn back to my early days as a preschool teacher. Almost four decades ago when I started to work with preschool children, I loved how the children reacted to these special songs. They smiled, laughed, moved and sang along. Hearing children sing and chant is one of life’s sweetest sounds. Last week, I sat on my deck with my grandson who comes to me on a regular basis to spend the day playing and learning and we started singing some of our favourite songs. It was joyful and Griff did not mind what the adults in my life find annoying, which is my lack of musicality. I have a hard time carrying a tune. Griff didn’t care. He wanted more! But I also had a hard time remembering lyrics. Then I had an idea. I told Griff to pose for a photo and I created a Facebook post for my friends who are mostly early childhood educators and kindergarten teachers and asked for suggestions.

Close to 200 comments later with a number of expressions of gratitude for the thread and how uplifting it was to remember the songs of our childhood, the songs of our children’s childhood and the songs we sing in our practices. Music is a way to connect especially during challenging times. It helps us deal with big emotions. It promotes relaxation and stress reduction. “Music is an emotional, complex, creative, multi-sensory, and whole-body experience” writes Elaine Winter in When Children Sing: The Important Role of Music in Early Childhood. Quoting Plato, Winter writes about the importance of music to learning. When quoting Pete Seeger, we see the importance of music to humanity.

I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy: but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning ~ Plato

If I didn’t think music could help save the human race, I wouldn’t sing ~ Pete Seeger

Singing songs with children helps them develop mathematical and language skills. It supports listening skills and self-esteem. Music stimulates children’s brain development. My educator friends know the value of music during transitions and routines. Singing particular songs during the course of the day can lead to a way to bring rituals into the lives of children. Rituals and traditions can help educators to “create a safe, warm and secure environment where children are able to learn and grow” (Howell & Reinhard, 2015, p. 1). This is what we want for children, especially in these uncertain times. There are so many different responses to this public health crisis and if you are being asked not to sing with children, we need to find ways to keep these songs, chants and finger plays alive! Tape yourself singing to children and share it with families. How about a zoom meeting to sing together in unison? A great song to sing would be “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, We’re Going to the Moon”!

I am so grateful to all the responses that I received on my original post. I have compiled most of the suggestions in this blog. I searched for videos and was instantly transported in time. Memories were stirred, evoking warm and fuzzy feelings. I now have a repertoire to share with my grandchildren, Griffen and his cousin, Reese who at 10 months seems to have a natural affinity for music. Thanks to my son-in-law she gets serenaded daily and has easy access to his guitars.

These last six months have been taxing for all of us. All of these wonderful songs, chants and finger plays provide an escape mechanism and a source of joy. I hope that you are not focusing on sadness and frustration because singing is a way to spread infections. I hope you are focusing on ways to spread happiness by encouraging families to sing in these trying times! It has made a difference to my family and it is all because of the amazing educators who shared their favourite tunes! I am smiling now while writing this post, thinking about the funny, silly and sometimes gross lyrics in children’s songs. Like many children before him my grandson loves “Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms”.

My heartfelt appreciation goes to my Facebook friends for bringing me back to what seemed like a much simpler time. Nostalgia has tremendous power. It makes people feel loved and valued and increases perceptions of social support when people are lonely. As explained in this article, when we experience nostalgia “we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and feel that life has more meaning”. These two suggestions helped me experience nostalgia. They were not songs that I sang with children, but they were songs I sang as a child! I loved Magic Penny written the year before I was born and back in the day, who didn’t love “Would You Like to Swing on a Star?”

I had been trying to recall a couple of preschool group time favourites, one because of my passion for buttons but also because I loved doing this chant with children for all the crazy actions. Now I can share it with Griffen and Reese.

In the middle of the night, I finally remembered the words and actions to Little Cabin in the Woods. I would sing this song with the children in my program. We had actions to go along. Then we would mime the first actions and so on. Inevitably, I’d get a reaction from the children with “help me, help me” especially when preceded by silence. I did rewrite the line about the hunter and rather than saying “shoots me dead” I changed the words to “bop my head”.

Changing the words to songs, sparked another fond memory. Anyone else remember using Jean Warren’s (1983) “Piggyback Songs and More Piggyback Songs”? A piggyback song involves taking a song popular with the children, like Old MacDonald, and changing up the words. I can’t bring to mind any particular piggyback songs that we sang but I do recall using these books a lot!

Does anyone still use piggyback songs with children? How do they respond? How are children included in the piggyback process? I would like to add one or two to my repertoire. My goal is to expand my collection. Singing songs with children for me is about the joy of expression. I know that I am not musically inclined. It is not one of my prominent intelligences. People who have strong musical intelligence are good at thinking in patterns, rhythms, and sounds. For me it is about “clicking” with a child which is when you get that feeling of an immediate connection. When my children were young we loved listening to Raffi who is a Canadian singer and lyricist still popular today. We loved singing the songs together. That was many years ago, but Raffi’s music lives on and now he also known for “Child Honouring,” a vision for creating a humane and sustainable world by addressing the universal needs of children. Raffi is such an inspiration! While we loved every single one of Raffi’s songs Baby Beluga is our favourite. It is the one that really clicked!

The list below represents the compilation of songs, chants and finger plays in alphabetical order from my original post. I am sure I missed a few, there were so many! I have linked them to videos to help you with the lyrics and melodies. I have so much gratitude to my Facebook friends for this trip down memory lane. I remember most of the suggestions but there were a couple of new ones like Peel Bananas! I can’t wait to “go bananas” with my grandchildren!

This topic clicked with other early childhood educators as evident from my original post on Facebook. I am buoyed by the response and uplifted by the generosity of my early childhood educator peers. In Ontario, early childhood educators mostly work either in child care programs, in partnership with Ontario certified kindergarten teachers in the school boards or in EarlyON centres. Patti Vandenbroek, the Community Resource Coordinator from the EarlyON centre in St. Thomas, Ontario shared a compilation of songs with me that includes words and actions. I have made the collection available here for downloading. While I can’t find any of my original books and resources from my time working in child care I just ordered this book, which I can recommend to you if you are also looking to expand your repertoire.

Please add your favourites to the comments section. I thank you in advance for adding to this compilation that is sure to bring joy to my grandchildren and hopefully to countless others. In closing, I thought this quote to be particularly meaningful in the time of COVID.

If I cannot fly, let me sing ~ Stephen Sondheim


10 thoughts on “Singing with Children During Difficult Times

  1. This takes me back…way back! I loved singing then and still do, although my choice of songs is very different now that I work in forest school. I recall these song books with such joy and I’m experiencing flashbacks to those days of snuggling up with a group of enthusiasts of songs and singing to our hearts content. When I realized that it really didn’t matter that my voice cracked and was too low or squeaky, I was motivated to sing even more. It wasn’t about the voice, it was about the connection to each other and the playful words. Thanks for this blog. As I read your Facebook post, revisiting it again and again, I wondered what would come from it. Now I know!


  2. Wow!! These are wonderful songs! I sang many of these to my own children. We also listened to them on cassette tapes (!) when we would travel. Sharon,Lois and Bram, Fred Penner and Raffi were some of our favourite artists. I am going to introduce some of these videos to my students during our body break time!!


  3. Dianne such a wonderful blog! I loved connecting on Facebook with all these songs! Your blog was wonderful to have the support and understanding why singing and music plays such an intrical part in Early Learning and for years to come! Thank you again for compiling this list!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Songs have always been an important way to build relationship in our classroom. Puff the Magic Dragon (first we learn the English and then the French version) is a perpetual favourite. Last year it was Gregg LeRock’s song “C’est comme ca ici” that became our class song. Early this week when I sent out our first email to parents, I invited them to consider the idea of virtual gatherings to replace our regular classroom open house family math days. One of my ideas was that we could at least sing songs (unmasked to see faces) for those that were interested. So far just a little interest, but I think I will put it out there again later this month. In the meantime, we are focusing on percussion rhythms. And in my own family, I found a book over twenty years ago for my son & then a different version for his sister. When my grandchildren came along I searched for and found used copies. It takes familiar lullaby melodies and pairs them with animal goodnight poems. My heart fills when I hear my grandson sing the songs to his new baby sister that I introduced him to such a short time ago. The title is “if You Were My Bunny” by Kate McMullen.


  5. Hi Diane, Sadly we have been prohibited from singing!!!  However since we have an outdoor play space connected to our classroom we can sing outside!  So inside we have been chanting and humming but it is so hard because we are so used to singing all the time with children!! If anyone has any research on singing indoors with children during covid that would be helpful to see!Thanks for the inspiration.  LuciaKIndergarten TeacherElmira, Ontario

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Open, shut them/ Open, shut them/ Give your hands a clap (clap)
    Open, shut them/ Open, shut them/ Lay them in your lap (pat knees)
    Creep them, creep them/ Creep them, creep them/ Right up to your chin/
    Open up your little mouth (pause…) But do not let them in!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. hi Diane, many thanks for this informative blog and this particular post – It has inspired some of my thinking and planning for a short, online training for songs and rhymes. As you say, particularly important during these difficult times – lovely to reflect back on the fun we had with songs and rhymes, and musical play, when I was working full-time as a practitioner. warm regards, Anni


  8. ooh, and I meant to add a few of favourites: – One finger one thumb keep moving…. and sleeping bunnies is always very popular, and mm mm! went the little green frog one day, and also a beautiful African song, that we used for naming circles/special celebrations or leavings, titled, Ke le le! – Ke le le, ke le le, Owa Owa Ke le le, which can be sung both softly and slowly, or fast and energetically. 🙂 Anni McTavish – London

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m so impressed by the great collection of songs you put together. I’m mexican and songs in English aren’t one of my strengths, so I really appreciate the list. Moreover because I see the educational meaning behind.


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