Music-making and language-learning: Using music creatively in the early years

14 January 2020

Music-making and language-learning: Using music creatively in the early years

This month sees the launch of “Sound Communities”, an exciting new online resource by I CAN, The Communication Trust and Creative Futures. The resource aims to highlight some of the commonalities between music practice and speech, language and communication practice. It contains practical tips, strategies and real-life examples based on an action research project and CPD course run by Creative Futures in schools since 2015.

Vanessa Stansall, Creative Producer at Creative Futures, explores some strategies that early years practitioners can use to support children’s skills in both music-making and communication.

The benefits of music-making in the early years are wide-ranging. Children are born with all sorts of musical capabilities; music naturally weaves through all areas of children’s learning and is part of their all-round development. In addition to this, music-making can be an accessible and inclusive activity for all children, including those with speech, language and communication needs.

So how can we make the best use of music in the early years? The following tips and strategies are based on our learning from the Sound Communities project.

  1. Follow the child’s lead

Early years practitioners are experienced in observing children and supporting their learning using their interests and strengths as a starting point. When it comes to music-making, however, we often restrict ourselves to an adult-led, circle-time style of music. While this type of activity can be enormously valuable, in Sound Communities we have emphasised ways to put the child’s voice at the centre.  

We use the following strategy: Observe, Wait, Listen (OWL). This technique supports young children’s learning, as well as their speech, language and communication development.

To apply this in a group music-making context, we might leave time to look for children’s responses between verses of a song or between one song and the next. Are there parts they want to spend more time exploring and developing?  

Observe what children do in their musical play. Is there a rhythm to their banging in the mud kitchen?  What is the pattern they’re playing on the xylophone? What are they humming as they paint?

“I have become more confident and have a better understanding of what to look for when observing children.  I see music everywhere, particularly out of doors.” (Early Years Teacher)

  1. Improvise!

So we’ve observed what a child is doing musically. Then what?

Firstly, we can celebrate it!  It is surprising how often children’s musical play goes unnoticed, so spotting it and valuing it is already a great start. 

We can also respond musically, which involves some improvisation. Think about the conversations we have verbally. These aren’t scripted – we listen to the other person, process what they say, and then formulate an answer. We can do the same with music! A simple way to start is by copying back what the child has played (or sung or tapped…). Valuing children’s music in this way can be a great tool for building relationships.

“We copied each other for a few moments and suddenly other children wanted to join in too. They all started to copy him. He loved this! …With no verbal communication, they were playing together and making music.” (Early Years Teacher)

  1. Use multiple modes of communication and music-making

Children’s music-making can involve more than just sounds. Some children might take part using their bodies, toys, paper, or even within stories.

Children’s communication is similar, in that it involves actions, gesture, signs and facial expressions. Communication is more than just words.

Using different modalities can make music-making accessible for children at all stages of communication development. Some children might want to sing, but others might want to do actions or move. In play, we might see children using their body language or eye contact to coordinate their musical conversations. If we remember to “OWL” when singing together, we might find that children have much more exciting ideas for lyrics or actions for the next verse than we had planned!

For all children, but particularly those with speech, language and communication needs, music can create a space where adults can encourage their participation and understand their abilities in different ways.

“We now try to use non-verbal modes more often...This has encouraged her to feel more confident to become part of the group and not sit at the side line”  (Early Years Teacher)


Sound Communities CPD course is taking place until 2021 in areas of East Sussex, Essex, Luton and London.

Access the Sound Communities online resource at for more guidance and findings from our research, or contact to find out more about the CPD course for early years practitioners.



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