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Using Music Effectively in Your Toddler or Preschool Story Hour

Carolyn loves writing about children's literature for library, preschool, or home settings. She has a BA in English Lit from BYU.

A German kindergarten teacher uses musical instruments to teach the children in her class.

A German kindergarten teacher uses musical instruments to teach the children in her class.

Music Activities for Young Children: Music Is the Key

You don't have to be Mozart, Rhianna, or Barney the Dinosaur to effectively combine music education with your preschool story-hour presentations. All you really need is a good portable music player and a small selection of songs that you regularly and consistently share with your children.

Some ideas for using songs, action rhymes, and music games are recommended here. If possible, some simple, toddler-friendly musical instruments are also a bonus. This article identifies some ideas for integrating music into your story-hour curriculum.

The Benefits of Music Education

Music has a place in any successful library story hour or preschool classroom setting. You will discover a laundry list of benefits to using music in an early childhood setting.

A Northwestern University study concluded that musical training during early childhood could be more important than learning phonics for developing communication skills during early childhood. The study linked both the development of speech and processing of music to the brain stem and concluded that musicians have highly developed language-learning skills.

Music is also fun, engaging, and educational and offers the following benefits:

  • Songs, fingerplays, and action rhymes are an outlet for children in a group setting to actively participate in the story hour, even in large groups.
  • Music and engaging actions have been proven by research to help children remember and retain concepts, so music is an excellent tool for reinforcing the early childhood concepts you want to introduce.
  • Teachers of English-language learners use music in a non-threatening way to make learning English fun.
  • Music offers shy or introverted children more frequent and varied ways to participate.
  • Music can be used to reinforce key concepts.
  • Music and action songs help children develop gross and fine motor skills that are associated with learning to read.
Music is an important tool that I recommend using in preschool education settings. Using music has proven benefits to developing young brains and is an excellent tool for classroom and group management.

Music is an important tool that I recommend using in preschool education settings. Using music has proven benefits to developing young brains and is an excellent tool for classroom and group management.

How Much Do We Remember?

  • 10% of what we read;
  • 20% of what we hear;
  • 30% of what we see;
  • 50% of what we hear and see at the same time;
  • 70% of what we hear, see, and say; and
  • 90% of what we hear, see, say, and do.

Fauth, B. (1990). Linking the visual arts with drama, movement, and dance for the young child. In W.J. Sinson (Ed.) Moving and learning for the young child (pp. 159-187). Reston, VA: AAHPERD.

Ways to Incorporate Music

Play music as children enter or leave the story hour room.

Playing instrumental or familiar children's music can create a friendly and inviting environment. Having music playing before story hour begins also creates an opportunity for the story hour presenter to turn off the music and thus signal the beginning of story hour.

Begin and end story hour with a song.

A welcome song is an important part of story hour or a preschool circle time. I define a welcome song merely as the first song of the story hour that welcomes participation. It signals that storytime has begun. A welcome song should accomplish two goals:

  1. It should signal the start of story hour. Using the same welcome song each time instills a sense of structure and routine.
  2. It should use actions or movement to help restless or active young children prepare to listen.

Here are some song suggestions for your story hour program. You could select just about any song. Just make sure the kids enjoy the music and then be consistent:

  • Shake Your Sillies Out, performed by Hap Palmer or Raffi
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
  • If You're Happy and You Know it: If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands (clap, clap)/If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands (clap, clap)/If you're happy and you know it then your face will surely show it if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands (clap, clap)
  • Perform these additional actions to "If You're Happy and You Know It:" Stomp your feet (stomp, stomp) Nod your head (nod, nod) Pat your tummy (pat, pat) Wiggle your fingers (wiggle, wiggle)
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Close the story hour with a goodbye song. These songs should help children wind down and signal that storytime is ending. Two songs by Hap Palmer are quite nice: one is titled Goodnight Story Time on Hap Palmer's Peek-a-Boo: Songs for Young Children album and Turn-A-Round on Hap Palmer's Getting to Know Myself album. Turn-A-Round is a particular favorite among children, parents, and librarians in the story hour programs I have visited in recent years.

Use contemporary children's music in different musical styles.

Don't limit your music to one or two artists. You can find a broad variety of musical selections just for children. Sometimes they are already at your local library. I have heard all manner of songs played in hip-hop, country, folksy, and even rock n' roll styles. Music of different styles will appeal to a broader audience at library story hour programs and will help the parents in larger crowds stay interested too.

Use music to set the pace and redirect attention.

Young children can be easily distracted. If your book selection doesn't have the engagement you were hoping for, or if a small child is struggling to focus becomes a distraction to other children, it can work against the pace of your story hour program.

This isn't an uncommon situation and is by no means a reflection of the story hour presenter's skills. It just comes with the territory of teaching preschool-age children. Music is a wonderful fix for occasional issues that are just part of teaching this age group of children.

Use fingerplays and simple action rhymes to keep kids engaged.

If you use fingerplays between book readings, you will find that young children remain imminently more engaged in your program. Fingerplays and action rhymes act as an outlet for young children who are unaccustomed to sitting still for long periods of listening.

As a rule of thumb, the younger the children in your storytime audience, the more fingerplays, action rhymes, preschool songs, and nursery rhymes you should use.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of simple rhymes with accompanying actions exist freely in the public domain on a number of topics. It's always a good idea to introduce new material, but you might consider using the same action rhymes for an entire month of storytime programs so that your children can learn the rhymes you use.

Introduce new material and reinforce messages with music.

Every television advertising executive knows this important truth about a catchy tune: it will help you remember the message you are trying to share. Just ask the Doublemint twins!

Trying to get children to learn a new nursery rhyme or remember a key concept? Set the idea to music. If you don't carry a tune well, you can use an audio CD. Several sing-along DVDs show words and actions if you want to go more high-tech.


Play Percussion Instruments

Use musical instruments as part of an interactive storytime playing/learning experience. Many percussion instruments lend themselves to playing and music exploration in a group setting.

Play purchased instruments or make your own.

Children can use simple percussion instruments, available in sets, to explore rhythm. Rhythm and rhyme are an important part of language, and exploring rhythms of music will help children develop reading readiness. Consider using bells, sticks (you can rub them together or tap them), maracas, or simple homemade shakers.

Use the musical instruments, such as a simple homemade shaker by filling cardboard tubes (from toilet paper or paper towel rolls or juice cans) with rice or beans. You can make homemade rhythm sticks by cutting thick dowels to 10-inch lengths (be sure to sand the ends), or by tapping paint sticks that you can sometimes get for free at the hardware store.

In a book about rain, for example, invite children to shake their homemade shakers when rain is mentioned in the story. You could incorporate a craft of making shakers that the children can take home, and even do this portion of the story hour before you do the reading or performance, so children can participate using the instruments you made.

Or use some of Hap Palmer's educational children's music or the music of an artist like Raffi to play along with pre-recorded music. The possibilities truly are endless here.

Use motion and sound effects to play along with the story

Don't underestimate the power of using your body to make sound effects during the story hour. Have children make these sound effects. By fully engaging in the storytelling, children will remember much more of what you are teaching them. They will be so engaged and have so much fun that they will want to return again and again, and bring their friends with them!

One way to do this is to teach the children 3 to 5 different sound effects, then use them in a story.


Have children dance to child-friendly music you select. Give them colorful scarves to wave around as they dance, or play freeze-dance, by turning off the music and telling the children to freeze when the music is off.

Dancing to music takes no advance preparation beyond queuing up a song, and it allows children who are accustomed to focusing on electronics an opportunity to wiggle and squirm until the next book is read.

Play games that include music and actions

Recommended for age four and up. You can play simple games adapted to familiar games you already know and incorporate these games into story hour. I have used all of these activities with different smaller storytime groups.

Note that children don't usually know these songs and you will have to sing the words to them and with them several times before they know the words themselves. Try to do the same things repeatedly until children know the words. Provide written words on handouts to parents.

London Bridges Falling Down: Have all the children sing the familiar words to this song and have two children or adults form the bridge with their hands while the other children walk under their arms. Another option is to use a parachute often used in preschools. Sing the song and call out children's names one at a time. As you sing the song they can cross under the parachute to the other side.

Baa Baa Black Sheep: Adapt the words of this song to include the names of the children in your story hour and their favorite colors. You could coordinate this with a reading of Eric Carle's book Brown Bear Brown Bear What do You See? or any other quality book that features colors.

Point to each child whose turn it is, and have them choose a color. Then sing the song using substitution for the name and color of the sheep. For example, Baa baa purple sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir yes sir three bags full. One for the master and one for the dame and one for Susie who lives down the lane! I used to sing this song to my toddlers when I pushed them on a swing. They loved choosing colors.

Ring-Around-The-Rosie: Children love to play this game. Substitute the words for "we all fall down" to "we all jump up" or "we all FREEZE!" This game is appropriate for older toddlers and can be used in a medium-sized story hour group.

© 2008 Carolyn Augustine


Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on February 21, 2012:

Thank you for your comment!

bredandagnes from Ireland on February 20, 2012:

Couldn't agree more.Helps their speech and language too.

Carolyn Augustine (author) from Iowa on July 13, 2010:

Thanks wordscriber, I hope it is helpful! The best children's story hours include music. It is a wonderful tool for pacing.

wordsscriber from California on July 13, 2010:

I like your ideas about the effect of music and motion when you tell stories to children. The home made instruments are very creative. I appreciate the info.

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