A few extra beats

All of us learn by making connections between what we are learning and what we already know. This sometimes happens overnight or over a period of weeks, and sometimes it happens in a flash. The important thing is for the student to have the opportunity to make these connections, and with small children, I do this by allowing a few extra beats.

I had the privilege of working with a bunch of small children this week in our new intensive program and in some group classes. Besides the fact that they are pretty darn cute, it was fun because I got to try out some new activities and bring back some old favorites, including the following:

  • Bells - I recently acquired some resonator bells that can be arranged in various ways. I laminated six index cards with the numbers 1 through 6 and placed one number in front of each of six bells (C, D, E, F, G, and A). I had each of the kids roll dice and then play the bells with the corresponding numbers. This worked extremely well in both the group class and the private lessons.
  • Rhythm Cards - I took index cards, each with a quarter note, half note, pair of eighth notes, or a quarter rest, and arranged them into various patterns. I did not explain anything to the kids - rather, I just demonstrated each of the notes using certain words corresponding to each note value and let the kids go from there, words which I learned from Gina Branagan at Village Elementary School in York, Maine during my student-teaching experience.
  • Pattern Echo - In private lessons, we did a call-and-response activity where I played a melody pattern and the student played it back.

Throughout all these activities, as well as the spontaneous moments in between, I allowed the students to dictate the pace as much as possible. This can be a little disconcerting for the parents, who are paying a lot of money seemingly to watch their kid tinker around with some bells or tap the piano keys a little bit. In reality, however, there's a lot more going on.

For example, suppose I've handed the child the mallet for the bells. Before I play the dice game or say anything about the numbers, I've got to let the child explore the bells. In doing this, she is internalizing the relationships between the tones, working on her gross motor ability, engaging in creative experimentation, and developing her rhythmic ability and sense of pitch.

After a couple of minutes, she might run out of stuff to do on the bells and be interested in my game. But if I were to skip over her exploration time, she would have trouble following the more structured rules of my game.

In the rhythm card activity, I give the kids a few extra beats by sitting silently for a moment after I put out the cards. Each child is in his or her own little world, thinking out loud, trying the pattern, clapping, and tapping. I wait until everyone has tried the pattern (some kids do it a few times), and then I count off so that we can all do it together. When the kids are incorrect, I do not try to fix it - I simply model the correct pattern, and let them make the correction themselves. By doing it this way, every child has the opportunity to process the rhythm pattern, not just the quickest child. Furthermore, the focus is not on "did I get it right?" but on the process of solving the puzzle.

When working with small children, certain actions might seem willful or disobedient but they are not. A small child walking into a new environment will put a lot of energy into exploring it and processing it. This can't really be rushed - if you tell him it's time to go sit down and focus, he wil not be able to do this.

Today when I was working with one little boy, as I was playing a musical pattern for him to echo, he appeared disengaged but was able to play the correct pattern by ear. He looked like he was distracted, staring out the window, but in reality he was completely involved in what we were doing. His vacant expression was actually one of concentration! In this case, taking a few extra beats allowed me to realize what was happening and why, instead of reprimanding the child for not paying attention.

Small children are learning constantly - everything is so new for them, and learning is still joyfully process-oriented rather than product-oriented. Allowing a child (and yourself) a few extra beats after every question, or at various points in an activity, will teach you both a great deal.

Teaching isn't explaining: it's listening, observing and adjusting, and that goes both ways.