When 2-year-old Emily Lynn Phelps was sick and in the hospital, the only thing that would cheer her up was her mom, Sherri, singing "Itty Bitty Baby Girl." "I sang this to Emily when she was an infant, and it totally helped calm her -- and me! -- down," says Sherri, of Hawthorne, California.
Music can have a powerful effect on toddlers' moods: It can distract them, amuse them, pacify them, and even get them to cooperate. How many times have you belted out the "Clean Up" song to encourage your 3-year-old to put away his trucks? Or how often did you sing a silly song to keep your 2-year-old still while you tried to wriggle her into a snowsuit?
What's more, experts say that songs can build cognitive skills and enhance a child's ability to learn. There's no hard evidence that exposing your toddler to music will make him smarter and raise his IQ, but music certainly can make learning easier and more fun. A case in point: A 2-year-old can't memorize the alphabet by reading it, but if he hears the ABC song repeatedly, he'll quickly learn the letters.
The toddler years are the ideal time to get kids to tune in to songs. "If children are exposed to music before they're 5, they'll feel much more free to sing in an uninhibited way later on," says Bonnie Ward Simon, cocreator of the Stories in Music CD series. "There's a key window of opportunity at this age."
Fortunately, it's not too difficult to engage toddlers with tunes. Most instinctively love music, and singing songs together is a great bonding experience for you and your little one. "The most natural way to develop your child's love of music is to expose her to the music you love," says Lori Custodero, DMA, associate professor of music and music education at Columbia University Teachers College, in New York City. Here are some ways for both of you to enjoy the sounds -- and benefits -- of music.
Keep a basket of props in your living room. Scarves, hats, tutus, and shakers all enhance your child's musical experience by encouraging dramatic play. Get a stick, listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and pretend you're the conductor. Take two paper plates, put some beans inside, and tape the plates' edges together to make a shaker.
Music classes are also a good idea, but toddlers aren't ready for formal lessons just yet. Instead, check out your local YMCA or look online for programs like Kindermusik or Music Together. "Two- and 3-year-olds can learn about different sounds and can even begin to create their own songs," says Kimberly Hill, a teacher at Kids' Music-Round, an early-childhood music school in Pennington, New Jersey.
Your little one won't clap to a steady beat or sing on key right away. But let her play in whatever way she wants and simply enjoy what she's hearing. "If she's been exposed to music activity, by the time she's about 4 she'll probably be able to tap out a proper beat," says Kenneth K. Guilmartin, director and founder of Music Together, in Princeton, New Jersey.
Percussion instruments are easy for little hands to grasp, shake, and tap. You can use pots and pans, and encourage her to think about the sounds she makes. "Ask her which pan's sound she likes best," Dr. Custodero says. "Talk about the difference between loud and soft."
Songs are a great way to help toddlers learn to experiment with words and sounds. They can learn rhyming patterns with songs like "I'm a Little Teapot" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." They can learn to spell ("B-I-N-G-O"), name the parts of their body ("Head, shoulders, knees, and toes"), count ("10 Little Indians"), and even speak new languages ("Frere Jacques") through songs.
Little kids have no problem breaking into song -- and you shouldn't either. Narrate your walk to the car in an operatic voice, or sing about the clothes you're picking out to the tune of "Old MacDonald" ("I am going to wear this shirt, E-I-E-I-O"). Soon you'll see your child do the same thing, as he begins to develop a love of music that can last a lifetime.
Three great CDs for kids who love to sing and dance:
Kids Rock for Peas!The Sippy Cups
This high-energy, rock-infused mix features original songs and imaginative covers of artists like Pink Floyd, the Ramones, and the Beatles.
Kids and parents both love Roberts, whose lyrics do a particularly good job of capturing a child's perspective on the world.
Folk PlaygroundPutumayo Kids
This easy-on-the-ears collection includes tracks by Laurie Berkner, Dan Zanes, and Brady Rymer.
These tips will help you make music a part of your family's life.