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A growing body of research is affirming the central role of music in early literacy. Librarians are listening—and designing programs with a deep mindfulness of how music supports PreK–learning. Music has been proven to do everything from boosting numeracy to developing empathy among children; from improving speech-language delays to augmenting comprehension. One study from the Music-Science Lab at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev showed that young children who played hand-clapping games had better cognitive and social skills than those who didn’t.
For librarians, engaging babies and children during 45 minutes of storytime or family sing-along is just part of the job. While making the most of rhyming tunes, props, and the “fun, fun, fun!” factor, as Minnesota children’s librarian Anna Haase Krueger says, librarians also educate parents about music’s importance. A founding principle of the child-adult music program Music Together, created in 1987, is that participation and modeling by adults are critical to children’s musical development.
While many parents crave the bonding and social aspects of these activities, understanding the latest research makes shaking those egg rattles a richer experience. Librarians help them learn—and encourage them to bring the beat home, or in the car, or on the bus.
The library-parent education initiatives Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) and Every Child Ready to Read 2 (ECRR2) influence many a storytime across the country. “The whole purpose of ECRR is to inform parents about what they can do” at home to prepare kids for school readiness, says Starr LaTronica, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children, which created ECRR kits for youth librarians in partnership with the Public Library Association. “Songs introduce words that they might not encounter somewhere else.”
ECRR, issued in 2004, identified six key skills that support preliteracy, such as print motivation, phonological awareness, and narrative skills. The idea is that encouraging these skills at home will reinforce libraries’ efforts. The revised ECRR2 (2011) uses terms that parents can grasp more easily to encourage these habits, swapping the six skills with five simpler “practices:” sing, talk, read, write, and play. However librarians convey this information, it’s critical for parents to keep up these habits at home. Attending storytime once a week isn’t enough to build preliteracy skills, according to ECRR research.
Where do librarians find music resources to encourage all of this educational fun? From “the hundreds of storytime blogs I follow,” says Kendra Jones, a children’s librarian at the Vancouver (WA) Community Library (VCL), and many follow suit. Sites such as Storytime Underground, where Jones serves as a joint chief, give librarians a forum for posting questions and sharing knowledge and best practices. These free resources, along with social media, professional networks, and storytime songs posted on YouTube and Vimeo, spark creativity and offer a community for librarians who often work in relative isolation.
While many libraries don’t have extensive physical music collections, some make use of library music downloading services such as Freegal. During live programming, many say, old chestnuts, such as “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” and “The Wheels on the Bus,” which pair singing with movement, never go out of style.
Mother Goose on the Loose
ECRR was still a ways off in the late 1980s, when librarian and music educator Betsy Diamant-Cohen created Mother Goose on the Loose (MGOL), a free, award-winning musical storytime program, now adopted by thousands of libraries across the country. Diamant-Cohen shaped her half-hour sessions with attention to how traditional stories and rhymes could be musically modified to support specific aspects of child development. Available in English, Spanish, and Hebrew, the sessions for one- to three-year-olds and their caregivers incorporate rhymes, songs, instruments, and puppets. The goal? To foster language, motor skills, and self-confidence.
Diamant-Cohen conceived MGOL after taking “Your Baby Needs Music” classes with educator and former opera singer Barbara Cass-Beggs while her family was living in Israel. Cass-Beggs saw music as a way to focus on the “whole child,” including social, emotional, intellectual, and physical skills. Diamant-Cohen studied with Cass-Beggs and then developed MGOL programs in Israel and later at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she worked as a children’s programming specialist. Over time, MGOL evolved from a “free-flowing nursery rhyme program into a 30-minute” structured one.
“People learn best through repetition,” notes Diamant-Cohen, who repeats 80 percent of her program content from session to session. “I don’t give people a script to follow. I encourage them to share themselves and use the songs and rhymes they know.” This year, a free MGOL felt board app received honorable mention as a Best Infant App from the Sixth Annual Best App Ever Awards, sponsored by the Steel Media Network.
Bubbles, marching bands, and ECRR2
VCL’s Jones credits Diamant-Cohen with “bringing back the traditional storytime rhymes. We steal all of her [ideas].” During Jones’s musical storytimes, children and caregivers can also expect her to blow soap bubbles when she sings “hello” and “goodbye,” at which point “they have to get up and chase the bubbles around,” exercising gross motor skills. Finger puppets, shakers, and free-roaming participation are also part of the picture, as is repeating songs such as “Fruit Salad,” sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques,” involving large gestures.
Jones, along with her joint chiefs of Storytime Underground, agrees that imparting literacy through music “is really about repetition.” As far as educating parents goes, “everything has to go back to those five practices” of ECRR2. “They went blurry-eyed” when trying to absorb the academic-sounding terms from ECRR, she says. “Sing,” an ECRR2 directive, is easier for many parents to grasp than the ECRR corollary “phonological awareness.”
Jones sources all of her recorded music from Freegal, and she finds ideas on the blog Jbrary (Jbrary.com), run by two Canadian children’s librarians. Though her physical music collection is small, she says, “Amazon and CDBaby.com are the best places to look.”
For research on music, Jones recommends Read, Rhyme, and Romp by Heather McNeil (Libraries Unlimited, 2012) and “School Readiness Begins in Infancy” by J. Ronald Lally, a 2010 article in Phi Delta Kappan (kappanmagazine.org). Other inspirations include book adaptations of songs by illustrator Jane Cabrera, “my go-to,” she adds, and Lisa Wheeler’s music book Jazz Baby (Houghton Harcourt, 2007).
“I don’t want to give a parent any excuse not to sing at home,” says Krueger, who works at the Ramsey County (MN) Library and shared the “Fruit Salad” idea with Jones and others. Krueger, a blogger at Future Superhero Librarian, adds, “I have really taken ECRR2 to heart in the sense that when I do a storytime, I try to incorporate it not as a one-time experience or specialty event, but as part of everyday life with kids.”
“My best resource is actually keeping up with librarian bloggers who write about storytime,” says Krueger, including Flannel Friday and Mel’s Desk, created by Colorado librarian Melissa Depper. She also relies on “YouTube to hear different versions of songs until I’m comfortable enough to sing it a capella.” Another favorite resource is MaryLee Sunseri’s album and activity booklet BabyO! (Piper Grove Music, 2005).
Krueger recently invited the local high school marching band to the library so that her youngsters could hear themselves sing with bold accompaniment. The 10 band members talked about their instruments, and the youngsters discussed the different tones of the low and high sounds. But even without trombones, Krueger maintains, music is a powerful tool: “Rhyming is also fundamental for breaking down words and syllables,” she says. “I’m trying to communicate that this super-fun time that we’re having is also educational.” And while “I love how accessible ECRR2 is,” she prefers to use ECRR with caregivers who crave deeper knowledge. Phonological awareness, for instance, refers specifically to the ability to hear and play with the smaller sounds within words. Krueger says, “Being able to relate to the underlying research to the simple practices makes it more powerful.”
F is for Forté; learning with eyes and ears
Amy Commers brought her classical music background to bear in her work as a youth services librarian at the South St. Paul (MN) Public Library. “I took a storytime that wasn’t succeeding and turned it into a music and movement program,” says Commers, a flutist and pianist who blogs at Catch the Possibilities. Even though her young patrons weren’t reading yet, “I showed them that the letter ‘f’ is for forté and ‘p’ for piano. To make something even quieter, you use more ‘p’s. We’ve done similar things with staccato and legato.” To convey note values, Commers uses an elephant to represent a whole note and a bumblebee for a 16th note “because they buzz around really fast.”
“I know there’s a correlation between memory and music—a mnemonic device,” says Commers, who looks to blogs including Bounce ’n Books, Listen and Learn Music, Let’s Play Music, and Kindermusik for inspiration.
Commers and her library kids also make up verses to tunes such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and romp to fast-tempo classics. “People really like Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Old Macdonald,’” she says, while The Nields’s version of “Hi, Ho, the Rattlin’ Bog” and the hello song “Hey Hey How Do You Do?” By Eric Litwin and Michael Levine are also among her favorites. “Nothing is cooler for the kids to see than the adult participating,” she adds.
To keep parents involved rather than staring at their cellphones or chatting, Commers incorporates “songs like ‘Bumpin’ Up and Down’ by Raffi, where parents have a part to play,” she says. “If caregivers’ attention is wandering a bit during the program, I might say something like, ‘now it’s the grown-ups’ turn!’ Or, ‘don’t let me be the only adult that looks silly!’ to encourage them.” Krueger’s strategy is to “throw in a lot of interactive stuff. If we are reading a story and there’s a hug or a kiss, I tell them to give a hug or a kiss, or [I say], ‘can you make your face look like that [picture in the book]? Show your grown-up your silly face!’”
Jones’s opening spiel includes a request for parents to avoid distraction and participate, telling them that children “look to you for how to do things, so show them! And have fun!” When focus strays, “I call on parents to answer a question,” such as “‘grown-ups, I know you know what a horse says. What does a horse say?’” Julie Roach, manager of youth services at the Cambridge (MA) Public Library, adds, “When we do music and movement I ask everyone to stand up, and we don’t start until” then.
To win over parents at CPL, “We have sing-alongs programs about 11 times a week” in the main library and six branches, says Roach. These sessions have evolved from “old-fashioned storytimes” to events that are always filled to 130-person capacity in the main library.
Roach and her colleagues also hand out bookmarks describing the various offerings and play recorded music all day in the children’s room at the main library. “We’ve got little dancers” by the circulation desk, Roach says. Playing music “helps us move [the] collection”— about 400 CDs and growing—“and it’s also really fun.” Roach finds ideas on the children’s music review blog ZooGlobble, Billboard’s children’s album chart, and AllMusic’s children’s section, as well as on iTunes and Pandora, the free streaming radio service. CPL is kicking off its 2014 summer reading program with a rock concert featuring the family musician Alastair Moock.
At CPL staff-run events, “We keep it really high-energy and fast-paced, and we encourage parents to participate,” says Roach. The more active they are, the more involved the kids will be.” She advises against handing out words, preferring for families to learn with their eyes and ears. English language learners, in particular, “want to get the words right.” Lyrics in Spanish and Portuguese are also included. She says, “you’re going to learn ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ before long.”
For the youngest, keep it real
“Early childhood is reality-based,” says Evelyn Avoglia, a library assistant in youth services at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. “They like to sing about their shoes, what they had for breakfast, things that are immediate.”
Like Diamant-Cohen and Cass-Beggs, Avoglia, who has a doctorate in vocal music and spirituality, focuses on the whole child and supports children’s “birthright to make noise.” Her training with Music Together cocreator Lili Levinowitz also informs what she does. “Even a tiny child will track you when you sing their name,” says Avoglia, known around the library as “Dr. Ev.” With groups of 20 or less, Avoglia sings each child’s name, ideally mentioning something specific about that child as well.
Avoglia also likes to use songs with “little tiny phrases, not a lot of language—that’s one strategy for getting people to sing.” Favorite books include “The many wonderful publications of The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly.”
To keep parents on board, Avoglia hands out “rhythm instruments to everyone, not just the children.” Plus, “I remind them that I am just a strange person doing strange things, but they are their little ones’ polestars, so if they do it, the children will imitate.” Avoglia also “uses lots of repetition, refrains,” and “animal sounds, so if people don’t know the words or don’t speak the language of the lyrics, they can still participate.”
Musician Nancy Stewart, who has trained librarians in music programming for 20 years, has an array of props to keep little ones engaged. “I grew up near Disneyland, so I bring the fun with me,” she says. When visiting libraries, Stewart brings Christmas lights and a “big blue board backdrop,” where she puts up images and words relating to her activity—like a banner that says “Bebop and Bugs,” with plastic insects. Last year, Stewart was hired to train librarians throughout Washington state, where she lives. On her websites, NancyMusic.com and SingWithOurKids.com, she offers a free downloadable song of the month and a recommended “Baker’s Dozen” of traditional songs published as picture books.
Stewart also created an inexpensive maypole with plastic streamers that librarians can replicate and devised “rhyming boxes,” effectively nesting boxes with pictures of animals that rhyme with other pictured objects. She shares more tips about props, programming, and downloadable songs on her websites.
Whatever the tools, method, or motivation, librarians agree that fostering the musical bond with caregivers is paramount to their programs’ success. “They think I’m great, but I’m just the librarian,” Commers observes. “My influence is much shorter.” Roach says. Whether parents come wanting deep knowledge about music or just to enjoy the singing, “We want them to have a positive experience around books in the library”—and beyond.
Best Music for Little Ones
All Together Now: Songs to Sing With Children by Kim Lehman (Kim Lehman, 2006)
Animal Songs by Tom Arma (Madacy Entertainment Group, 2004)
Anna and the Cupcakes by Bari Koral (Loopytunes, 2012)
Bob’s Favorite Sing Along Songs by Bob McGrath (Bob’s Kids Music, 2013)
Great Big Sun by Justin Roberts (Carpet Square, 2001), or any of Justin Roberts’s music
In a Heartbeat by Laura Doherty (CD Baby, 2014), or any of Laura Doherty’s music
Little Ditties for Itty Bitties by Michele Valeri (Cathy & Marcy’s Song Shop, 2010)
Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Mitchell (Folkways, 2012)
One Elephant, Deux Elephants by Lois and Bram Sharon (Elephant Records, 2002)
Outer Space by Dino O’Dell (CD Baby, 2012)
Sing It! Say It! Stamp It! Sway It! by Peter and Ellen Allard (80-Z Music, 1999)
Sticky Bubble Gum and Other Tasty Tunes by Carole Peterson (Macaroni Soup, 2002)
Tickles and Tunes by Kathy Reid Naiman (Merriweather Records, 1997)
What I Like! A Kid’s Collection of Songs and Smiles by the Champaign (IL) Public Library (Champaign Public Library, 2011)
Wiggle and Whirl by Sue Schnitzer (Wee Bee Music, 2000)
Compiled by SLJ music reviewers Beverly Wrigglesworth, San Antonio Public Library, and Veronica DeFazio, Plainfield (IL) Public Library District.
Online music resources
All Music’s children’s section
AllMusic children’s section
Bounce n Books A music and movement program blog.
CDbaby.com A commercial site that yields ideas for music.
Every Child Ready to Read The online site for the library-parent education initiative.
Flannel Friday A collective storytime blog.
Freegal Freegal.com A library music service.
Future Librarian Superhero Ideas from librarian Anna Haase Krueger
Jbrary.com A resource of storytime ideas from two Canadian librarians.
Kindermusik a music and movement program for children from birth-7; a great resource for talking points
King County (WA) LIbrary System “Tell Me a Story” A storytime companion for parents and caregivers.
Listen Learn Music.com Original educational music.
Let’s Play Music Suggestions for musical storytelling.
Mel’s Desk Storytime ideas from Colorado librarian Melissa Depper.
Mother Goose on the Loose Betsy Diamant-Cohen’s interactive music session and tips.
Music from Nancy Stewart Resources, tools, and downloads from veteran musician and library consultant Nancy Stewart.
Music Together The home of the commercial Music Together program.
Sing with our Kids More community-oriented free resources from Nancy Stewart.
Storytime Underground Ideas for changing lives with every fingerplay and felt board.
Washington County Cooperative Library Services “Fingerplay Fun” Fingerplay, rhymes, and more.
ZooGlobble A children’s music review blog.
“School Readiness Begins in Infancy” by J. Ronald Lally, a 2010 article in Phi Delta Kappan.
“Music and Childhood: Clickable Links for Children’s Library Practitioners” compiled by Tess Prendergast and Betsy Diamant-Cohen (Children and Libraries, the Journal of ALSC, summer, 2014)
BabyO! by MaryLee Sunseri (Piper Grove Music, 2005)
Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler (HMH, 2007)
Can You Hear It? by William Lach (Abrams, 2005)
Five Little Monkeys (Go Fish, 2010)
Classics for Kids (Cincinnati Public Radio, 2013)
“The Learning Groove” CDs by Eric Litwin and Michael Levine (CD Baby)
Hi, Ho, the Rattlin’ Bog sung by The Nields (Peter Quince, 2007)