Hey all…let’s talk about music for a minute…
Do you sing into the hairbrush as you get ready? Do you drum on the steering wheel on your commute to work? Do you have family dance parties in the living room to songs with hand motions before bed? Helloooooo, BABY SHARK?!
If the answer to any of these questions is no, my question to you is WHY THE HECK NOT?
If the answer to all of those questions is YES; then HIP HOP HOORAY, HO… HEY… HO! To you 😉 You are my people!
Do you remember when, where, and how your love music first started?
For me, as a little girl, I remember two very distinct happenings that catapulted my love of music. First, was the steady rotation of REO Speedwagon, Madonna, STYX, and Amy Grant on bimonthly road trips to visit my grandma for nearly 2 decades. And second, I remember incessantly singing, reciting, and performing my favorite Pre-K song, “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumble Bee” every single day to anyone who would listen.
And while my little family unit doesn’t do so many road trips, many of those same habits have trickled down to our next generation. Instead of music on long road trips, it’s the constant booming of tunes through our Alexa speaker! And just like me, my 4-year old is now the one coming home with new songs from preschool to teach his little brother.
From the Beatles to the Jonas Brothers. From 90’s hits to worship music. And everything in between, we love it all!
We even blast those sing-songy children’s tunes. You know, the ones that get stuck in your head for days? The ones with little hand movements, counting, and rhyming words. Or the ones where you touch your nose, clap your hands and turn all about. Then there are even the ones with the goofiest lyrics. Makes you wonder how in the world someone could even come up with it?
But as an OT, I totally welcome it. I sing, dance, and demonstrate songs and movement all day for my “little friends” at work because I know and believe in the incredible benefits of songs with hand motions. So why wouldn’t I do exactly the same for my own children?!
Nursery rhymes, fingerplays, circle songs, movement and hand songs, whatever you want to call them, “I. LOVE. THEM!
On the surface, they might seem simple, or at times annoying; but there are so many rich and important skills that develop while learning, performing, and repeating those silly songs.
It is truly to your advantage (and your child’s advantage) to fully embrace them. Creating and fostering interest and love of participating in these fun kid songs nurtures so many skills that many kids these days are honestly lacking.
But why are songs with hand motions so great?
Together, let’s unpack the amazing benefits these types of songs with hand motions offer. They are foundational in my school-based therapy as well as my home time silly sessions.
Imitation of actions and speech is thought to be an innate ability we are born with. That imitation is a form of learning. Seeing and then doing (or not doing based on the outcomes observed of that action) teaches us about our bodies, our environment, and those around us. If imitation is something that comes easily for your kiddo, consider yourself lucky.
If this is a struggle for your child, don’t fret. Fingerplays and hand songs are a fun, easy, and engaging way to encourage your child to repeat the demonstrated movements of your body (head, arms, hands, legs, face, etc.), learn the lyrics of the song, and explore the relationship between their body and environment.
- Side note: If there are balance or mobility issues, start with songs that can be done in a seated position. Remove the elements of difficulty so your child can focus solely on the imitation aspect. If your child continues to have trouble correctly imitating the hand motions, have them perform them in front of a mirror to improve awareness of their positioning.
Keep it fun, light-hearted, and follow their lead. If your child says “More!,” hit repeat. If they seem to not enjoy a certain song, change it up. If you keep at it, you should see those imitation skills in no time!
2. Range of Motion
Lots of these songs incorporate every body part from the head to the toes. A child might need to reach, twist, shake, bend, clap, stomp, turn, bow, snap, etc. any of their various body parts at any moment.
Take some time to watch your child perform each of these moves and notice any possible restrictions of movement. If you notice something, try helping them increase their range of motion by focusing on the same moves each day. You may even need to physically (with gentleness) stretch them past those points they can’t get to on their own. Do this regularly to prevent further shortening of the muscles. If you have a greater concern beyond your capabilities, please reach out to a professional who can properly evaluate your child.
3. Fine Motor Skills
There are so many small muscles in the hand. Each of them needs tons of repetition of various movement patterns and positions to improve dexterity and automaticity. Finger songs are awesome for targeting lots of fine motor movements such as a pincer motion, finger isolations, forearm rotation, finger stretching and strengthening, coordination, and more.
For example, think about songs involving counting and how quickly (or not so quickly) a child can display the corresponding number of fingers they are singing about without the use of their other hand. This takes practice and perseverance.
4. Counting/Number sequence & recognition
Many of the songs we sing at our house involve counting. And actually, many of them count backward. I’d encourage you to help your child learn all the numbers in proper sequence before introducing counting backward.
We like to sing 5 Green and Speckled Frogs, 10 in the Bed, 5 Little Ducks, etc. Counting both forward and backward have their benefits. As a child sings and pairs the words with the number of fingers held up, they can begin to not only develop the previously mentioned fine motor skills but start to create awareness and automaticity of numbers and improved 1:1 correspondence (a critical skill in Kindergarten).
For example, if we start singing 5 Little Ducks by also holding up five little fingers, a child will start to create an association that a hand holding up all fingers represents or equals the number five and so on for each number as you work your way through the song.
This is the ability to focus on an activity or stimulus over an extended period of time. It is what makes it possible to concentrate on an activity for as long as it takes to finish it, even if there are distracting stimuli present.
I think this is a skill many people overlook in little kids. Most people just think “it will come in time” or “my child is only 3, what do they need to focus on for more than a few minutes anyway.”
And yes, while it’s no secret that children between 2 and 5 tend to have short attention spans (some as short as 10 seconds); attention is a skill that needs to be fostered and expanded through play and learning; not through technology!
Songs with hand motions are a great tool for improving the length of a child’s engagement as they have a clear beginning and end. They also have rhythm, use silly words, facilitate social experiences, and hopefully develop an intrinsic desire for a child to complete the full sequence of events; however long the song may be.
Which leads us to…
Sequencing is a critical life skill. It is the ability to arrange information in an effective order to achieve the desired outcome. Dare I say, everything requires the ability to sequence. From pouring a glass of milk to tying shoes to driving a car. Actions must be arranged in a first, next, last order; oftentimes with upwards of 10+ steps to reach the intended outcome.
Through sing songs, a child will anticipate the sequence of events based on what they remember through the repetition of each song. Therefore, songs with hand motions also require memory. Kids must organize and reorganize the information during each future attempt.
For instance, during everyone’s favorite roller rink ditty, the Hokey Pokey; one must remember to put your left arm in before you put your left arm out. And one must shake it all about before they do the Hokey Pokey and they turn themselves about.
It’s quite difficult for a child to perform that song with proper sequencing on the first, second, or even third time imitating it. They must hear it and do it several times to start memorizing and sequencing the steps for a successful performance. And even then, it will require sustained attention to listen for the body part as well as imitation skills to properly correct and catch up with the group, should they make a mistake.
7. Body Part Identification
This one seems obvious, but necessary to share. Because certainly you can teach your child to point to their nose or their toes or their elbows while hanging out in the living room after dinner. But is it as fun and engaging as dancing and singing with them for a quick pre-PJ wiggle sesh? Not even a little bit.
Children will start pointing to and labeling body parts between 12 and 18 months.
But at that age, what length of time do you anticipate they will sit (or stand) with you while pointing to different body parts?
Obviously, every child is different, but my boys would do 3-4 body parts within 15 seconds, then be up and off to the next thing.
By using music and movement, I can get them to participate for up to 30 minutes in these songs all while learning where their ears, elbows, and chin are! 30 MINUTES Y’ALL!
Hello, sustained attention!
Not only is this great for increasing the opportunities to work on learning body parts, but I also appreciate how it occupies the time during those unusually LOOOOOONG afternoons that seem to have no end. 😉
This is a biggy! SPEECH SPEECH SPEECH! Songs encourage frequent and continuous opportunities to get their mouths moving. Whether you are wanting to help your child increase his vocabulary or improve articulation; music and songs are an easy and motivating way to do so.
Fun Fact: Did you know Ed Sheeran overcame a significant stutter by memorizing and rapping Eminem lyrics at the age of 10? If that’s not evidence-based research, I don’t know what is… 😉
And in our house, it wasn’t just the singing of songs that helped their speech and language. I’m utterly convinced that both of my boys’ articulation progressed more rapidly by the motivation they got from requesting their favorite songs to play throughout the house on our linked devices. “Echo, play Baby Shark.” “Alexa play Skinny Marinkidinky Dink.” “Computer, play the Toy Story 2 soundtrack by various artists on the lounge group.”
It’s been so fun (and FUNNY) to watch them learn and do this!
Music is a powerful tool. One that I know nearly all speech therapists use within their practice.
9. Social Skills
This kind of falls under the speech umbrella but there’s so much rolled up in social skills; maintaining eye contact, body language, facial expressions, proximity to peers while performing gross motor movements, tone of voice, reciprocating song lines, encouraging peer participation, etc. There are many opportunities for children to share experiences by singing a song as a large group, without the pressure of figuring out what to say or how to say it.
I always think of the shy kid who doesn’t say a word in class but the beat drops, and he’s singing, jumping, and smiling. By participating in these songs with hand motions, this allows the other children to see that the shy kid actually does like school and definitely wants to be part of the group but just isn’t sure how or needs time to warm up.
10. Prepare for Table Top Tasks
If songs with hand motions or movement activities are not a part of your classroom schedule or after school/pre-homework routine, they need to be! Before instructing your child (or a classroom full of children) to sit down for a writing assignment, you need to get them moving!
Movement songs are beneficial in preparing the whole body for the tasks that lie ahead. They get the wiggles out, stretch the muscles, activate the core, regulate the breathing, stimulate the brain, arouse the eyes, and coordinate the fingers.
Additionally, the children receive the transition to a less preferred activity much better than a command to “sit down and get your pencil out.”
Songs with hand motions provide an opportunity for a child to release any tension, frustration, and anxiety that might be evoked by merely suggesting a pencil/paper task. And they can also be an incentive or reward for completing the expected (sometimes difficult) task.
For example: “First, we move. Then we write/do our homework. Then we move again!”
Give it a try and see the difference. Notice your child’s engagement in non-preferred tasks. Notice the overall regulation of your child. And notice the quality of their work when you offer them a chance to organize their body and brain before requiring increased academic demands.
Are you bopping along with me?
As you can see, songs with hand motions and movement breaks are incredible. No matter the age of your child, there is something you can observe and improve in them when you take the time to engage in these fun, simple, and silly songs.
When I watch a student or one of my own boys memorize the lyrics or master the hand motions of a new song over the course of a few days or weeks, I beam with pride.
And when I catch them singing the songs to themselves in the backseat as they perform the motions—I melt!
So. Dang. Sweet.
After some time incorporating songs with hand motions and movement songs into your routine, and you start observing the growth in your child in one or more of these 10 areas, please let me know! I’d love to hear about it!
If you’re wondering where to get started or what songs might be beneficial head over to find out my 25 Favorite Songs with Hand Motions.