I relish the opportunity to sing and dance, as I’m sure many of us do during storytime programs. But when I started working with children with special needs, I realized I had to be more thoughtful when selecting songs for an inclusive audience. For example, many children with autism have an aversion to music. High-pitch singing, loud volume, or fast beats could cause a child to cover his ears in discomfort. Following along with the lyrics of a song while imitating a librarian’s movements could be equally confusing for the child. Processing both visual and auditory information at the same time is a challenge for those with sensory processing disorder. Some children may not be able to stand without assistance or may have other limitations with their mobility. In this case, establishing an expectation for children to “dance” or “jump around” may not be feasible for every child. At first, there was a lot of trial and error, but eventually I found music can be utilized quite successfully with children with special needs. So, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.
One way you can use music in a program with children with special needs is to do what I like to call “song stretchers.” These can be brief one or two minute songs that provide an opportunity for children to release energy and move around. I like to choose an activity that can be completed or easily modified to accommodate all children. Jim Gill has a wonderful song called “My Ups and Downs” on his CD Do Re Mi on his Toe Leg Knee. The melody, played by only a few instruments, is essentially a chromatic scale with notes that slowly ascend and descend. At the beginning of the song, I lead children in pretending we are very small with our knees bent and hovering close to the ground. As the music ascends the scale, we all grow taller reaching our bodies way up high stretching our arms out. As the melody descends the scale, we all shrink in size slowly bending our knees coming closer to the ground…until the music starts ascending again, and then we repeat. What I love most about this song is that it can be easily modified for those with limited mobility. A child with cerebral palsy, for example, may only be able to move their arms slightly up and down. But this activity allows the child to still be able to participate, feeling included in the group. Jim Gill has many years of experience leading musical play groups with children with special needs. It really shows in his music–it’s fantastic and I use it every chance I get!
Another way I like to use music is by leading a structured activity incorporating the music as the guide. Bean Bag Fun by Laura Johnson and Diane Waldron is an oldie, but a goodie! This CD is a collection of songs with instructions to activities involving bean bags. “Bean Bag Kickline” allows the child to practice their eye-hand and eye-foot coordination by kicking a bean bag across the room. “Bean Bag Carousel” is a great track that offers the child an opportunity to practice sharing by tossing and catching a bean bag with a partner. Sometimes you might rather design your own activity or give instructions at your own pace. With this CD, it’s easy–there is an instrumental version for each of the tracks. Music can be used to have fun, but providing a structured activity with the music can offer an opportunity for learning. These activities can also help children to develop their gross motor skills, increase balance, and learn the difference between left and right–an added bonus!
Giving a child the chance to march to the beat of his own drummer, so to speak, is perhaps the easiest ways to utilize music with children with special needs. And my favorite item to use during free dance is a scarf because it can be used in so many different ways. Scarves can be used to identify different parts of the body (“Put the scarf on your elbow. Now put the scarf on you head. Can you balance the scarf on your knee?”). They can also be used to practice shapes (“Make a circle with your scarf. Now make a triangle. Now use the other hand.”). You can even hide objects underneath scarves, allowing the child to experience object permanence. Of course, you can always just wave the scarf around in the air, too! What I like about the Musical Scarves & Activities CD is that it’s collection offers the option of both free dance and activity-based songs. Tracks like “Round and Round” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” allow children to practice hand and arm movements while waving their scarves, whereas tracks like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Under the Sea” are opportunities for children to work together in a group. Using scarves not only increases the amount of sensory input in your program, but they are a fun prop to enhance the musical experience.
I love music, but it’s particularly beneficial to use with children with special needs. The repetition and rhyme from lyrics build language and enhance communication, which is essential for any child with autism. During musical activities, we also provide opportunities for a child to interact with other children in a group setting, allowing them to practice social skills. If you notice a song is not being well-received by your audience, there is nothing wrong with ending the song early and moving on to the next activity. Every child is different and may react differently when introduced to a new sound or song. But I’ve found that when songs are presented slowly, clearly, and with careful focusing of the child’s attention, music can be enjoyed by everyone.