“What is your favourite song?”

This innocuous question is possibly asked somewhere in this country every day. The associated musical interactions often take place in two different ways. Firstly, there are planned singing sessions where children choose songs from a selection, perhaps using pictures or props to help them or when adults provide materials to encourage dancing by providing materials such as dancing scarves. Secondly, practitioners might use music to narrate what a child is doing, perhaps singing ‘See-saw, Marjorie Daw’ while children are rocking backwards and forwards or facilitating spontaneous dancing by following children’s impulsive movements to environmental sounds.

Many of us can recount the benefits of music making to early childhood. Music acts as both a foundation for, and a viewing glass of, children’s development. One well known example for this is the inherent steady beat, pulse, and rhythm of traditional nursery rhymes. These repeated phrases help children learn basic underpinning mathematical structures. Consistent use also helps reinforce the number system. Of course, music does not just support early maths. It can also support young children’s understanding of the inherent rhythm of language, extend their vocabulary and help explain the meanings of words they have already heard. Music can also support children’s personal and social development and self-expression.

Can you guess the answer?

Frequently, the response to this common question of “what is your favourite song” is similar. The child selects from one of a narrow selection of nursery rhymes, such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, ‘Old MacDonald’, or ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’, to name a few.

But what does this answer mean?

Children’s responses to the adult’s request to name their favourite song gives you an indication of the child’s personal, social and emotional development; their answer reveal what they understand about social interactions and is influenced by their experiences and attachments.

Those answers may not actually be the child’s favourite song. A child’s musical world is significantly larger than that which we see in settings. They have a both a unique and a broad musical environment – including the songs they hear at home, the digitised sounds they hear on electronic devices, and the music they hear when out and about.

So why is the common response so often a nursery rhyme?

Firstly, the question is directed from an adult to a child. Many of us who work with young children understand they are often quite aware that the adult wants and expects something specific from them and so they search for the ‘right’ answer. A child responding with a nursery rhyme could be a demonstration of this phenomenon.

Secondly, the question is an invitation to engage in a social interaction; it is not just a request for information but an encouragement to interact. Music binds children together with the other children and adults around them in a shared experience: let’s all do something together. Again, the child who names a nursery rhyme is showing you they accept this request to engage with them socially.

Given those points, how does the child know that you know the same songs? I knew a child whose family experience led them to think the words ‘music’ and ‘ABBA’ were interchangeable. Just how many of the words to ‘Fernando’ can you recite from memory? Rather than responding with one of ABBA’s greatest hits, unsurprisingly, this child would always state their favourite song as ‘5 Speckled Frogs’ because they had learnt that what the practitioner really wanted was to interact. The communication which follows from this simple question relies on shared knowledge and experience. A child does not respond with their favourite song – they respond with their favourite song which they know you also know.

A child needs this security before answering because to offer a choice is to give an opinion in front of others. They need to be safe in the knowledge that they will be heard and understood. Just how would you go about singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ if a child was to offer that as a choice?

There is a common language of nursery rhymes which is fairly consistent in settings throughout Britain. Nursery rhymes are easy to learn and often follow repeated phrases and structures. Practitioners commonly use props, puppets, books, and other visual aids to help children learn the songs and make choices. These help children who are non-verbal, or who are still learning language, to also take part. Nursery rhymes create a shared and common language.

Music is also, therefore, fundamentally inclusive. It offers children a different, but shared, language to communicate with. Just like young children do not divide their learning into arbitrary ‘subjects’, nor do they separate their perception of noise into categories. For our youngest children all noise might be considered communicative. Babies’ cries are highly individual and comprehensible immediately to their primary caregivers. Is the same also true of music choices?

Music is one vehicle that practitioners can use to get to know the real child. If you really do want to know what the child likes, you need to spend time developing a culture and environment that is open and in which children feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions. This requires strong links with families and with the children themselves.

Furthermore, understanding a child’s home language and their own personal communication abilities is central to our understanding of them as an individual. Clearly, this is difficult. But here, too, music can be useful; what ways does the child communicate musically? Can you hear their own language or utterances following a consistent rhythm? How do they seem when they are verbalising?

Returning to our initial question; understanding what song a child chooses as their favourite is as important as singing the song itself. The child chose that song because they want to engage in something with you. By following this through, you are empowering them with not only the opportunity to have their voice heard but also the joy of being able to affect those around them by their choices.

The Early Years Foundation Stage has continued to place more emphasis on the importance of including children’s interests; have you ever wondered what they might want to sing if we opened the possibilities to many kinds of music?

This blog post was written by Gareth Shaw, Early Years Programme Lead at the National Children’s Bureau.