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At home with children? Have fun and get creative with this music toolkit.

“Musical activities can also support one of the most critical social relationships: that between a parent and child.”

by April 16, 2020

Visual icons by Valerie Muñoz

During this time of social distancing, self-isolation and school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are searching for creative and meaningful ways to engage with their children.

Findings from the National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab project awarded to the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab suggest that engaging young children in musical activities may provide a particularly powerful and effective medium for interactions between a parent and child.

“You may have seen — or participated in — the viral videos of neighbors making music together from their balconies and porches. During these difficult circumstances, singing and music making are bringing people together despite being physically apart while practicing social distancing,” Miriam Lense, PhD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and director of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab, wrote in a blog post for the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Musical activities can also support one of the most critical social relationships: that between a parent and child.”

According to Lense, studies show that singing and musical play capture and maintain children’s attention, regulate emotions in both children and parents and support prosocial behaviors such as helping and cooperation.

A recent national survey conducted by the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab on parent-child musical experiences in roughly 300 parents of young children with and without developmental disabilities found that parent-child musical experiences are associated with more positive parent-child attachment, or the feelings, thoughts and behaviors parents have about their child and their relationship.

To help guide parents in leading musical activities with their children during this period of isolation, Lense and colleagues from the Serenade program, a parent-child research project that is part of VUMC’s National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab, have created a home toolkit of strategies for at-home music engagement.

“The home toolkit provides parent-child music activities to try with your child, including video playlists, audio recordings and suggested activities. The toolkit’s strategies and tips demonstrate how you can use music activities to support your child’s development across a range of domains including emotion regulation and play, speech and language skills and pre-academic skills,” said Lense.

Engaging young children in musical activities may provide a particularly powerful and effective medium for interactions between a parent and child.

Below are some of the activities the program suggests for strengthening parent-child interactions through music at home.

  1. Share experiences: Musical games enable parents to share an experience with their child and to provide the child with positive attention by looking at them, singing with or listening to them and imitating their movements and gestures. Songs with body movements allow parents to follow their child’s lead, showing the child they are paying attention to them and want to be part of their activities.

Suggested activity:

  • Use a familiar song like “Happy and You Know It” that you can participate in together. Add additional verses with new motions that your child likes, or have your child choose the motions and copy them. For example: “If you’re happy and you know it… jump up and down!”
  1. Use musical games to influence emotions: People engage with music because of how it makes them feel. With the current changes in schedules and routines, activities that help regulate mood are particularly important. Parent-child music making experiences impact the mood of both children and parents.

Suggested activity:

  • Use the tune of “Happy and You Know It” to sing about different emotions and what to do when you feel that way. For example: “When you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! When you’re sad, get a hug! When you’re angry, take a breath!” Change your tone and facial expressions to match each emotion.
  1. Use music to encourage pretend play: Songs provide opportunities for imaginative play. Some children love pretending and will be excited to use toys or stuffed animals to act out different songs. For other children, pretend play is a harder skill, and familiar songs can provide a structure for learning pretend play routines.

Suggested activity:

  • Use songs that have a narrative you can act out like “We are the Dinosaurs” by The Laurie Berkner Band, “Fire Truck” by Ivan Ulz or “Octopus (Slippery Fish)” by Charlotte Diamond. For younger children, nursery rhymes such as “Wheels on the Bus” or “Baby Shark” provide opportunities for pretending through song-associated gestures.
  1. Developing speech/language and pre-academic skills: With schools out, many families are looking to provide learning experiences for their children. Children’s songs can help children practice skills like counting, colors and letters as well as listening and following directions.

Suggested activities:

  • Incorporate songs into story time. The classic story “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See?” by Bill Martin Jr. pairs well with the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” For younger children, let your child fill in the color or name of the animal. For older children, take turns singing by following the question-and-answer pattern in the lyrics. If you’re not seeing friends or extended family members due to social distancing, use a variation of this song when looking through a photo album or during video chats (e.g. “[Child name, child name], who do you see? I see grandma looking at me!”)
  • Rhyming skills are important for literacy development. The song “Down by the Bay,” popularized by Raffi, lets children create their own rhymes as they pay attention to letter sounds.

For additional activities and video/audio playlists, visit

How is your family engaging in musical activities at home during COVID-19? The Music Cognition Research Lab is collecting survey responses from parents of children ages 6 months to 5 years. Participants can enter a lottery to win an Amazon gift card for their participation. Access the survey:

COVID-19, coronavirus, Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab, Miriam Lense, National Endowment for the Arts, Otolaryngology, music