Children's songs may include songs that adults sing or teach to children, songs children pass along to each other, and songs that children compose themselves. These distinctions are not always clear cut, however, as adults may teach children songs that they learned from other children in childhood, and children may pass along songs learned from adults to other children.
Five recordings from Library of Congress collections
The songs adults and older siblings sing to infants are often designed to make the work of taking care of a child easier. Lullabies reflect various ideas about what will send an infant off to sleep. Some have soothing rhythms for rocking a baby such as the Puerto Rican lullaby, "Niño Querido," sung by Cruz Losada, while others use a gently jostling rhythm, such as "Come up, Horsey, Hey, Hey," an African American lullaby sung by Vera Hall. Lullabies may express the frustrations of caring for an infant, have nonsensical lyrics, or have lyrics intended to entertain older children who may be present. Parents are free to express frustration in their songs, especially while their children are too young to understand the words. For example, the lyrics of "Rock-a-bye-baby" are disturbing if examined too closely. The lyric, "When the bough breaks the cradle will fall," would more likely induce nightmares than sweet dreams if the baby understood it. Another familiar lullaby, "Pretty little horses," expresses something that an adult may imagine that an infant might dream of, but that infants themselves would not understand. Like all folk songs, lullabies are difficult to date. The lullaby "Ughniyah li al-Atfal," sung in Arabic by the Lebanon-born Nicholas Debs of Jacksonville, Florida, and recorded in 1940, is said to be the story of an historic event in the fourteenth century, so the song itself may be many centuries old. It tells of a young Lebanese girl who is enslaved and made a nursemaid. She puts coded information in the lullabies she sings, which helps her family to find and rescue her. 
Songs that adults teach to older children include educational songs designed to teach counting, the alphabet, cultural awareness, or other subjects. For example, "Diez perritos pequeños" (Ten little puppies), sung in Spanish by Señora Isabella Salazar, teaches children to count backwards from ten to zero. For school-age children, songs may be used to teach them about patriotism and current events. For example, "Land of the Free," by Edward Roberts and William O. Bourne, published in 1862, was composed for children to sing in support of the Union during the Civil War. Another example is "Children of America are we," sung by students at the Blalack School for children of Hispanic heritage in Blalack, Texas, recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939. Holiday and religious songs are taught for educational purposes to children at home, in classrooms, and in religious settings. An example is "Holy Babe," a Christmas song sung by African American students (recorded by Willis James, 1943 in Fort Valley Georgia). Songs adults create and teach to children may tell us a good deal about how children are regarded in a particular historical period, and what parents and teachers want children to learn.
Adults may also sing and teach children songs to entertain them, or to give them a way to pass the time while doing household chores or during long car rides. A familiar song for traveling with children is "Bingo was his name,"(select the link to hear a Bahamian American version sung by Robert Butler). Nursery books provide songs that adults may sing to or with children not yet old enough to read, and may also be used to teach reading and memorization skills. Little Songs of Long Ago, by Alfred Moffatt (1912) includes songs that existed in oral tradition long before they were written down. Songs such as "London Bridge is falling down," and "O, dear what can the matter be?" originated in the folk tradition and stabilized in their current forms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after they became available in published form. Today, in addition to song books, children learn songs from television, radio, recordings, internet music and video sites, and film.
Nonsense songs in many forms are often entertaining for children and these may include songs learned from adults or from other children. For example, "Billy Boy" is a familiar song that sounds like a courtship song, but the lyrics do not quite make sense. Billy Boy's new wife's age, the listener is told, is "three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven," but, "she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother." Edward Lear was a nineteenth century poet who wrote many nonsense poems appropriate for children, some of which have been set to music. Lear's poem, "The old man with a beard," set to music by Margaret R. Lang is an example. In addition to being entertaining for both children and adults, nonsense songs and verse are also thought to play a role in the educational development of children.
Songs that children choose to sing and pass on amongst each other include those that are used to entertain or tease each other, songs for games, songs used to determine who is "it" in preparation for games, and songs for holidays, among other types. Children may define the boundaries between their world and the world of adults by setting irreverent lyrics to the tunes of songs of which adults approve. For instance, many Americans remember singing some version of the song, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, teacher hit me with a ruler," set to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," when they were children. In the United States the repertoire of songs that children share among themselves may vary a great deal among ethnic groups, and this is especially true if children live, or are schooled, separately, as happened during the era of racial segregation, and as happens among children who attend ethnic schools or live in ethnic neighborhoods. During the 1930s and 1940s there was a growing interest in children's folklore. Folklorists became interested in the singing games of African American children, which differed from those of white children. Zora Neale Hurston, Alan Lomax, and Herbert Halpert were among the ethnographers who made an effort to talk with African American children and document their songs, and some examples of these are available in this presentation. Children of different ages and genders in the same ethnic group may also have different song repertoires.
Children also appropriate the songs of adults and adapt them to suit their own activities. Political jingles, popular songs, and dance songs frequently find their way onto the playground. "Skip to my Lou" was an adult dance song of the American frontier that became a children's song. "Play-party" songs were originally songs for young adults to sing at parties, particularly when dancing was forbidden for religious reasons. Gatherings where adults sang and played games were acceptable, and so songs were created for these occasions. Some of these have since become children's songs. The humorous song, "Crawdad," here sung with mouth harp by Mrs. Vernon Allen in 1940, is an example of a song that has long been enjoyed by both children and adults. It started as a play-party song for adults before it became a song for children. But it continues to be enjoyed by adults as well , and versions intended for adults were recorded by Woody Guthrie in 1944 and by Harry Belafonte in 1962.
Since children's songs created by children, if they are successful, are often sung, changed, and adapted by generations of children, it is usually impossible to identify the original author. But the provenance of children's songs can sometimes be documented. For example, the documentary fieldwork of Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin identified child composers whose families had fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and subsequently lived in the Shafter Farm Security Administration (FSA) Camp in Shafter, California. Children often compose songs about what is happening in their lives, and so the "Government camp song," composed by sisters Betty and Mary Campbell with Margaret Treat, describes what happened in the lives of younger children of migrant workers. Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat were twelve at the time of the recording (1941), but Betty's age is not given. In the lyrics the children describe the "little rag-house homes" that they live in and the activities of the camp in the song. Younger children of Dust Bowl migrants were cared for and educated in the camps while their parents worked, but older children went to work alongside their parents. Lloyd Stalcup, age fourteen, sings his own composition about his life as a migrant worker and his hopes for the future in "The Cotton Picker's Song," also recorded in the Shafter FSA Camp. While he sings of being happy, it is also clear that the life of a young cotton picker is not an easy one, and he wants to go home to Texas.
Children's play, games, and work songs usually circulate among children, and if published, are intended for children. But adults also enjoy children's songs, and occasionally children's songs are recorded and presented for the world of adults. An example is "Sea Lion Woman," sung along with "Old Uncle Rabbit" by Katherine and Christine Shipp in this field recording made by folklorist Herbert Halpert in 1939. "Sea Lion Woman" was an African American ring game song. As a result of this documentary recording, was featured in the 1999 Paramount film, The General's Daughter. A number of versions of it have also been recorded by professional pop musicians, including Nina Simone and Leslie Feist.
In the world of the playground as well as in the commercial world of children's recordings, films, and television programming, songs are generated and passed on at a fast pace. The repertoire of children's songs sung by both children and adults today may change a great deal in a short time. Yet there are some songs that endure and are enjoyed by many generations.
- Stephen Winick, 2012. "Folklore and/in Music," in A Companion to Folklore, edited by Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, p. 470. [back to article]
Like most preschoolers, your child probably already loves music and has favorite songs. This may have happened with little encouragement from you beyond simply playing music on long car trips.
But did you know that your preschooler is now at an ideal age to expand his or her musical horizons and abilities?
Listen to the Music
Kids who grow up hearing music, singing songs, and moving to the beat are exposed to a wide variety of tastes, smells, textures, colors, and sounds. And researchers believe this forges more pathways between the cells in their brains.
Musical experiences are an important way to help create these pathways, also called neural connections. And while listening to music is certainly key to creating them, it's when kids actively participate in music that they make the strongest connections.
Research shows that kids who are actively involved in music (who play it or sing it regularly):
- do better in reading and math when they start school
- are better able to focus and control their bodies
- play better with others and have higher self-esteem
All Together Now
Preschoolers develop a catalog of songs, from "Happy Birthday" to "Old MacDonald." They begin by singing portions of favorite songs, sometimes substituting different words or rhythms. Eventually, they can sing entire songs, although the pitch may be off.
You've probably noticed that your preschooler can keep a steady beat. You can help your child practice this skill by encouraging listening for beats — and determining if they're steady or not — in everyday objects. For example, point out the noise a kitchen clock makes and ask your child if it is a steady beat; then ask if a sound like a car horn or a dog barking has a steady beat. Practice clapping or tapping the beats to favorite songs and encourage your child to copy you.
The simplest thing you can do is put on music and dance with your child. Vary the rhythms and tempo of your body with the music. Practice "copy dancing" where you invite your child to imitate your movements and then let him or her lead as you follow.
You also can make the musical experience more visual through movement and a few props. Scarves can show ascending and descending pitches — raise the scarves up over your heads as you sing up the scale and then drop them down the floor as you go down. Or have your child walk on tiptoes when you listen to high, quiet music, and stomp his or her feet to louder, slower music.
Combining music and movement helps preschoolers learn to control their bodies. They learn to move fast to fast music, and more slowly to slow tunes. They also can learn the hand movements and simple dance moves that go along with rhymes and songs. Learning physical control is an important developmental step and can help build concentration skills and self-control later on.
Bang a Gong
Although some music-instruction programs are geared to preschoolers, most kids at this age will enjoy a more casual introduction to musical instruments. Provide a rhythm stick or a set of bells to hold in each hand and encourage your child to keep the beat while you listen to a song.
You can even make musical instruments together. Put seeds, beads, rice, beans, or other small objects inside plastic containers or bowls with lids, plastic eggs, empty plastic bottles, or film canisters. String, rubber bands, and shoe boxes make great guitars and old coffee cans or oatmeal containers are ideal drums. Then put on your child's favorite music and play along.
For Those About to Rock
If your household has musical instruments, your child may start to use them to create a mood — banging loudly on them when happy or playing them quietly before naptime. You can encourage this by playing appropriate music for your child to accompany.
Practice "patterns" — using a rhythm instrument or your hands, play or clap short rhythmic patterns. Invite your child to echo what you just played. As your child gets older and more used to the game, make the patterns longer and more complicated. Allow him or her to lead. You can also use words as patterns; for example, a nursery rhyme like:
Round and round the haystack, goes the little mouse
One step, two step, in his little house!
Read part of the rhyme ("Round and round the haystack"), then ask your child to clap the syllables or play them on a rhythm instrument (demonstrate this the first few times). Then say the next part of the rhyme and ask your child to play it.
Also help your preschooler explore a very basic instrument: his or her voice. Demonstrate the steps below and invite your child to do the same.
"This is my speaking voice" (spoken normally). "This is my quiet voice" (spoken in a whisper). "This is my calling voice" (spoken loudly). "This is my singing voice" (sung).
Play That Funky Music
Here are some ways to give kids chances to be musical:
- Sing or listen to music in the car, while you're doing chores, and while your child is playing. Keep a basket of musical instruments where kids can get them. Consider buying a kid-friendly music player your child can operate and keep in his or her room.
- Make sure your child's preschool offers chances to sing and play simple instruments, to move to music, and to create music. Ask the teacher what songs they regularly sing so that you can sing them at home.
- Enroll your child in a preschool music class. If you don't know where to begin, ask the music department at your local college for suggestions.
- For a special treat, take your child to live musical performances, especially ones designed for preschoolers. Museums, libraries, and bookstores often host performances by children's-music artists. Outdoor concerts are also a good bet for preschoolers because they can dance and move around without disturbing anyone.
And after you've seen a concert together, encourage your child to give a performance for your family at home. He or she can even cut out construction paper tickets and get dressed for the occasion. At showtime, take your seat and get ready for a great show!