Early Learning: Music, Music Everywhere?

What do four- and five-year-olds like to do most?

"Move and paint and make noise," says Paul King.

King, who is the Executive Director of the New York City Department of Education's Office of the Arts, recently spoke to WNYC's SchoolBook about the role of music in early childhood development. With the expansion of prekindergarten in New York City, early ed teachers are learning to integrate music into their classrooms in new ways, teaching science, the seasons, and the senses through song and movement.

Elaine Winter has long observed a crucial link between music and children's creative and cognitive development. The Director of Preschool & Early Childhood Programs at the Third Street Music School in New York City, Winter says that singing and moving are central to any early learning environment, along with block-building, painting, and story time.

"The studies on music and neurological development are everywhere," Winter told me recently. "Music molds our minds. It transforms us. So many benefits accrue to young children through music because brain development is so rapid. It's like learning a second language, which is much easier to do at age 3 than it is at age 13."

Winter cites four areas of brain development that researchers believe are enhanced by musical training: executive function and IQ; literacy and language processing; memory; and social understanding and self-awareness.

Studies on the intellectual benefits of playing a musical instrument continue. But Winter thinks that Plato got it right long ago. "I would teach children music, physics and philosophy," he said. "But most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning."

Music is woven into many activities at the Third Street Preschool, including literacy, movement, and dramatic play. "You can use music to name the kids in a circle, learn colors, and assign classroom tasks," Winter says.

"Preschool is about making learning relevant and integrating activities," she adds. "When children make chocolate chip cookies, they're learning science—measuring dry ingredients and wet ingredients. They're learning words, like mix, sift, and stir."

Winter welcomes the measuring that goes on in her preschool kitchens. But she worries about a trend toward measuring academic achievement among three- and four-year-olds.

"I think we often rob children of time to play," she says. "This is the only chance they have. If we focus on achievement instead of engagement and process, we miss the point. Achievement comes when children are engaged." And, of course, singing.