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How Music and Play Enhances STEAM Education for Early Learners

Date: 08 November 2022
A group of pre-K students sit together in a classroom and play musical instruments, including a triangle and xylophone. This post was first published on Ed Note, Education Commission of the States’ education policy blog. It was guest authored by Wincey Terry-Bryant, master teaching artist at Wolf Trap.

My parents noticed early in my life that I had an inclination for memorizing song lyrics. They told me that, before I could speak, I would park myself in front of the television and sing along with every commercial jingle. I wasn’t alone. On the school playground, my friends and I sang our favorite songs loud and proud.  

I had no idea how useful this inclination would be for me later in life as a vocal arts specialist. Arts integration and play-based learning also hold potential benefits for young learners, both of which state policymakers can leverage to improve achievement and a host of additional outcomes.  

During a hiatus from touring as a background singer for artists like Sting and Tina Turner in 1998, I had a conversation with an educator that led me to the classroom. She asked me two questions that changed my life:  

  1. “What do you really love?”  
  2. If you could do anything, what would you do?” 

I barely had to think about it. I love children and music (possibly equally). If I could do anything, I would bring music to children — real, live music — with stories and education. After that, I contacted The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which had just become an affiliate of The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts, and I began training to become a teaching artist.  

With Wolf Trap, I learned how to leverage the arts to provide early childhood educators with active learning experiences that promote key developmental skills. As a vocal arts specialist, I simplify and teach an arts skill to classroom teachers, such as how to write a basic chant or jingle.   

Developing these experiences with educators can help them teach a range of age-appropriate academic topics, such as number sense, measurement, algebra, literacy, science and engineering. Exposing students to these subjects early on through music and play can head off the intimidation associated with these topics. Another bonus for educators is seeing how every lesson crosses the curricula, making it easier for them to meet their teaching objectives.   

For instance, during the Early Learning STEAM State Policy Academy hosted by Education Commission of the States, I shared a songwriting activity that uses the names of shapes in place of the lyrics to the familiar children’s song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”  

I start this activity by asking students to guess what’s in my repurposed oatmeal container. Next, I pull out one shape at random and ask students to identify it. Then, the students and I clap out the number of syllables in each shape’s name. Later, we line the shapes up on the board and sing the shape names to the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Finally, students take turns leading our song by rearranging the order of the shapes and conducting the class in performing their new arrangement. 

In this activity, students are practicing reading left to right (literacy), shape identification (geometry), shape attributes (number sense), sequencing and patterns, song arranging and conducting, size and volume (dynamics), comparison, syllables, melody (music), vocabulary and symbolism.  

Recognizing the importance of play to the development of early learners and integrating the arts with STEM subjects can lead to enhanced outcomes for students. To support this, policymakers can convene STEAM education leaders to develop state and local solutions, such as supporting teaching artists, professional development for educators, creating STEAM designations at the school level and addressing associated funding needs.  

What I’ve learned most from my experience is that the arts can help teach any topic, and it can transform classrooms. Arts-integrated curricula and associated professional development are investments that can reap rewards for teachers, students and their families well into the future. 

Title: 2280 Pasos Bajo un Cielo Nublado | Artist: Hernán Jourdan | Medium: Film

When I was asked to create a work of art exploring literacy, I wanted to create a dance but I had no dancers or a studio, so I chose to use my own body in the space I had, my yard. Fluent Nature is video of micro-choreography that explores what cannot be expressed with words, how nature has its own language, and how placing the human body in nature changes the story.

Title: What Is Me and What Is Not Me | Artist: Alex Chadwell | Medium: Music

My thinking on arts and literacy centers around the concept of literacies and artmaking as both sense-making and meaning-making processes that organically and inevitably overlap, intersect, and reciprocate. Compositionally, What is me and what is not me is a sound collage of sorts (there is no notation for the piece, and I'd be hard pressed to recreate it accurately) that abstractly and aurally represents the relationships between literacies and artmaking.

Title: A Curious Honeybee | Artist: Gideon Young | Medium: Film

Offering welcome through traditional and digital elements of literacy, A Curious Honeybee provides an experiential learning environment by activating visual, musical, natural, and emotional literacies.

Title: Tercera Llamada | Artist: Karilú Forshee | Medium: Audio

La Carpa Theatre is a project that I am currently directing in the Detroit Latinx community. The project aims to strengthen and uplift youth voices through devised theatre, in the style of the Mexican Carpas. This audio was created in the theatrical environment envisioned for our project. The ways in which literacies are re-defined are at the heart of La Carpa Theatre's mission.

Title: Literaseas | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite and ink on paper with digital edits

Title: A Riddle | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits

Title: False Binaries | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits