Sound for the Mind

A Charlottesville resident offers free online music education to preschool kids during the crisis.

Actively participating in music is one of the best ways to support children’s brain development, as well as build their math, literacy and social skills. It also taps into children’s creativity and imagination, while bringing them joy and a sense of safety and well-being – things they always deserve, but that are priorities in this challenging time.

Charlottesville resident Mary Anderson – a proud graduate of both J.R. Tucker High School and Virginia Commonwealth University – has a master’s degree in music education from Boston University and has been a preschool and elementary school music teacher for 15 years. Since leaving the classroom, she’s done a lot of research on the effects of music on the developing brain, as well as observed over 100 preschool classrooms. The result is the creation with her husband Mike of the My Music Starts Here program specifically designed for children from 3 to 7 years old.

When the pandemic began limiting families to home, Anderson grew concerned.

“As schools started closing, there was a flurry of online learning resources starting to circulate as well as video chatting with teachers, but for the most part, our youngest learners were left out of those resources,” she says.

To help support both early childhood educators and parents newly at home with their youngsters, Anderson and her husband created a free spring music program, filled with developmentally appropriate video content for children ages 3 to 7 that she says is interactive, engaging and provides many options for screen-free learning. The program is completely free and was designed so a parent doesn’t need anything except a phone, tablet or computer for the child to watch on.

The couple designs all of its programs so that they can work with the parent sitting with the child or with the child on their own.

“As parents ourselves, we know that sometimes you just need your little one to be engaged with something so that you can be doing something else,” she explains. The content is designed to be developmentally appropriate for the young child, so parents can feel good about just hitting play. But Anderson readily acknowledges that young children learn best and are most engaged when the parents or caregivers are involved and they’re able to take their learning off-screen.

Anderson says that at this age, children’s brains are developing rapidly and also starting to prune what they don’t need based on the experiences the child is having. Studies have proven that when children are active participants in music-making, it makes their brains stronger and more flexible, creating pathways in the same areas of the brain that are needed for early literacy skills, listening skills, math skills, and social and emotional learning skills, all things that children need to be successful in school and in life. Just 20 minutes of music learning three times a week for six months is enough to dramatically increase a child’s language development and positively impact reading, math, emotional regulation and social skills.

The goal of My Music Starts Here is to give preschool teachers and parents something that’s easy to use, developmentally appropriate for young children and supportive of their growth and development. Anderson has created six playlists that model a child’s circle time in their classroom, with lists filled with songs, finger plays, steady beat activities and movement songs. Then there’s an active listening version that gives a curated list of pieces and engaging questions to guide children in deeper listening and creative ways to respond to music. A music for mindfulness list provides pieces that help to calm and soothe, while a favorite songs playlist is filled with some of Anderson’s favorite songs to sing for and with children.

Because young children love watching things over and over again – it’s how they learn – Anderson’s videos are short, maybe two to three minutes. She encourages families to watch videos multiple times until their little one can sing the song or speak the poem on their own.

Not only does music have the power to heal, but when a child and caregiver sing together, it bonds them together and comforts them.

“Music brings us joy and young children delight in making music,” Anderson says. “These things are always important, but in such stressful times as these, music can truly be one of the most positive ways we get through our days together as a family.”

The free program couldn’t be easier for parents to use. They can simply hit play on one of the playlists or refer to the parent guide for myriad ideas on different ways to use all of them.

“Best of all, it supports all of the skills preschoolers need to be ready for kindergarten.”

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