Rock In, Folk Out: Introducing Music to Small Children (Guest Post)

This is a guest post by local musician & music teacher Peter Kenyon about his experiences teaching a music class at a Montessori preschool.

I feel that I can truthfully say that I am still in close contact with my inner child. This is a good and bad thing. I find myself being affected by life’s offerings and reacting in much the same way as the children around me. If a large truck drives by, I react with a “Woahhhhhh!!!” exclamation by accident, with my students or son voicing the same proclamation. If a scary event happens in a movie, I tend to jump and give an exaggerated scream of terror, something that the accompanying child(ren) would also do. The good aspects of my connection to my inner child tend to make me get through to and show companionship with children.

However, these moments of being easily impressed and scared don’t bode too well in adult contexts. Shouting excitedly and pointing at a shrimp cocktail platter while at an art gallery opening party isn’t necessarily the definition of decorum. I think life seems more fun when people look at you with a slight scowl. They obviously don’t work with or have children. And if they do, I feel sorry for those kids.

All that inner child connectedness being said, one day two years ago, while working at a Montessori preschool, I was sitting with children in a music class. Now, the music teacher subscribed to the traditional  “Let’s Sing Nursery Rhymes and Songs About Colors with an Acoustic Guitar” mentality that you see the world over, and I was bored after ten minutes.  It was Safe, tried but not necessarily true methods of music teaching.

On this particular day two years ago, sitting in the Safe music teaching session, I started formulating ideas for my own music class. Primarily I thought “How could I hold children’s attention for the entire span of a lesson? How could I get small children to talk about music outside of a music setting?” And “Is there a way that small children can compose their own music?”  These questions were just the beginning of the music class I created to supplement the already established acoustic performer.

Over the one and a half years I taught this class, I taught Rock, Jazz, site reading, film scores, found instruments, Elvis, Surf Rock, Reggae, noise, the list goes on and on. The class had its ups and downs, lessons that worked and lessons that didn’t. But in the end, I did find a way to reach my three goals of Keeping Attention, Enthusiasm Outside of Class, and Original Composition.

I find that when parents are actively seeking advice on how to introduce music to their children, I suggest that they do some of the following things that I found out through my music class experience:

Immerse children in fully engaging activities or LOUD performance. This does not necessarily mean play loud music, per se, but that works, too. What I mean is immerse children in an experience that they simply cannot turn their attention away from.

  • When I taught Elvis, I was a tour guide for Graceland, Elvis’ lavish home. I planted items within the classrooms of the school, such as a mic stand and microphone, a picture of a jumpsuit, a small television. The mic stand was Elvis’ recording studio, the TV was Elvis’ personal television, and the jumpsuit picture was taped up in a cubby to simulate Elvis’ closet. I then led the class as a group from one section of the classroom to another, showing each “room”, including showing the bathroom, saying that that was where Elvis met his demise . . . on the toilet. This was gold to the kids. They still remember the name Elvis and that he was the King of Rock n’ Roll.
  • I wanted to show the kids Tom Waits, because I thought that they would be interested in his theatrics and vocal style. So I performed a five song set of his material, starting with “What’s He Building in There?”, a creepy spoken word piece. I turned off the lights for five seconds, then turned on a bare light bulb and placed it underneath my chin, while speaking in his same raspy drawl. After this song, I placed the bulb on a drum and picked up two maracas, and started singing “Baby Gonna Leave Me”. Each song upped the ante on dynamics, with me banging on an actual floor tom, snare, and cymbal, along with me screaming in Tom’s Cookie Monster voice for “Big in Japan”. The kids were at first scared, but interested. They were head banging by the end of the set. Nobody talked for the full thirty minutes. And these are three-year-olds we’re talking about.
  • I wanted to teach the children about different small percussion instruments. It was Easter time, so they had to find instruments that I had placed in our indoor play area. I called out “Find the tambourines!” “Find the maracas!” They knew the names of nine different instruments and how to play them by the end of the lesson.

Don’t stick to one genre. The Safe music method likes to use Folk as the overall genre to teach music to small children. What’s funny is that even when I tried to teach Folk, donning a theatrical role as a hippie dressed in Indian garb and leading a parade around the playground singing John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, the children still lost interest after ten minutes. When the music was louder and electronic, the children stayed focused and attentive.

I do recommend starting off with Folk, however, when first introducing music to your children as toddlers. There are a plethora of children’s artists, but Raffi takes the cake as my personal favorite. Nobody holds a candle to him in terms of singing traditional nursery rhymes and original compositions. He has a personable, humble touch to his music. Even as an adult, I become emotionally invested in his songs. Plus, he doesn’t come off as a creepy children’s artist, of which there are also a plethora. Here’s a video sample of Raffi in concert:


  • Around the age of two, start changing things up. Keep a steady collection of Raffi, The Beatles, Elvis, new age, techno, noise, everything. But keep the music up-tempo. Two- and three-year-olds really love to dance.
  • If you want to bring attention to a certain artist, I’d show them The Beatles. Their melodies are so captivating to small children. Plus, after the initial folk upbringing in toddlerhood, they bridge the gap between children’s music and louder rock. Songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’ Garden” mix well with the louder tracks like “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution”.
  • Five-year-olds love heavy percussion and distortion. I’ve found they love Nine Inch Nails.  Steer clear of any songs with dirty language, of course, but NIN have a plethora of instrumental material. I’ve found that I’ve gotten the most response from these two tracks: “The Day the World Went Away”  and “The Mark Has Been Made”, mainly for their use of dynamics. Kids love the interplay between quiet and loud. The distortion and emotional effecting on the instruments hold children’s attention. They tend to ask “What’s that sound?” with each added instrument.
  • All ages, including one-year-olds, love loud sing alongs, like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “Yellow Submarine”. Stuff that they can belt at the top of their lungs sticks with them, and you’ll see them singing those songs at all hours of the day.
  • Play different genres each week in the car while out and about, on pick ups from school, waiting for Mom or Dad in the car while they make a bank transaction. One week, play rock n roll. The next week, play techno (if you’re into that sort of thing). The next, folk. And discuss the properties of the music. Ask with rock “Are the drums fast or slow? Loud or soft?” With folk “Is the guitar electric or acoustic?”
Ladybug in the Instrument Petting Zoo at Rock the Cradle 2011

Introduce instruments. Show children pictures and videos of musicians performing. They’ll most likely mime performing instruments as they listen to music, causing an interest in actually wanting to play an instrument to spark. Start instrument playing at the toddler level, and let children of all ages know that common household items can be instruments, too. Bring out pots and pans, boxes, toilet paper rolls, rubber bands. Ask them to play along to loud music and see if they can keep a beat or melody.

Learn the lyrics. Having a child learn the lyrics to a song promotes enthusiasm. There was always a peak of enthusiasm whenever a Winter or Spring Concert was coming up, since they had to memorize lyrics, melodies, and rhythms.

Encourage them to make music. The most I’ve ever seen children enthusiastic about music is when they’ve written the music themselves. The final aspect of my class was to have four different classes pick a topic of their choosing (they came up with Nature, School, Family and Speed). Then, I asked them to draw pictures related to their topic (the class with Nature drew pictures of boats, trees, camping, the class with speed drew pictures of monsters taking down buildings, police cars chasing people on motorcycles). Each child showed the class their picture and said something about it. I wrote down what they said in a notebook. I then put each child’s sentence about their picture into an arrangement of sentences for each class in a way that made sense. These became the lyrics to their song. Each class then decided on an instrument and a tempo to accompany their song, including whether the beat would be straightforward, like a march, loud or soft. I then recorded each song and gave each class a CD with their song on it. The classes then learned their songs by heart and sang them to an audience of 200 people at their Spring Concert. Each child knew the line that they had contributed, and whenever they heard it or sang it, they blushed or looked extremely proud. You can listen to these songs and read the lyrics here.

Like I said, these are merely some suggestions for how to introduce music into your child’s life. Follow some of these, follow all, follow none. But this is what I took away from the wonderful experience of sharing my deepest passion with a group of 100 awesome kids.

Just please don’t stick to only acoustic based children’s folk music past the toddler age. I’m begging you, and your children are begging you. Jazz it up a little. Introduce a little noise to the musical palette.

Peter Kenyon is a local musician and music teacher in the Twin Cities. His current project is a band called Patch, which you can find at  He also works as a nanny and is a father of an adopted one-year-old boy.

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3 thoughts on “Rock In, Folk Out: Introducing Music to Small Children (Guest Post)”

  1. “he doesn’t come off as a creepy children’s artist”
    …Ha ha! So true!
    Our iTunes play list has more Raffi than any other performer.

    We have mixed CDs for our kids that we play in the car. It’s largely Raffi, the Muppets, and TMBG, but we do have two Beatles songs…”Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden.”

    I want to introduce my kids to instruments & let them write their own music, but since I’m musically inept, I don’t think our home environment is very conducive to doing that. Suggestions?

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