Blog: Nurturing Children Together

Arts at Noon - Playing with Pitch

At Allen Creek, we have an extension program called Arts at Noon. The children who are enrolled for Arts at Noon stay after their regular school day for enrichment classes, such as music and art. I am the teacher for the music class, and I will be writing a series of blog posts that offer a summary of the emergent music curriculum so far, and share some of the fun learning moments we have experienced together.

This fall, one concept we have been exploring is pitch.  According to a post by the American Psychological Association, an early understanding of pitch can help later on with singing in tune, composing music, and learning tone languages, such as Mandarin. So far, in our class, we have started learning concepts of relative pitch (the relationship between the sound of notes). This is something we will extend by learning about absolute pitch (identifying the sound of notes by name). Both absolute and relative pitch can be learned at a young age.


Generally, I find that young children already know what pitch is, even if they don’t have a name for it. They understand that sounds from our voice or other sources can go up or down (relative pitch). This learning begins when they are babies, and they hear the voice of their caregivers going up and down. Often, “motherspeak” can be as much as an octave and a half higher than the normal speaking range. Taking what they already know, we have explored how pitch changes, and how we see the difference in measurable ways, such as size or length, depth or shape. The children in our class have learned that the longer the object, the lower the pitch will be. We have studied this a few ways.

First, we looked at the xylophone, positioned sideways, with the shortest bars at the top. We talked about how it looks like a mountain, and the higher you climb on the mountain, the higher the pitch goes.


This concept could also be seen on the harp. The longer strings have a lower pitch, and are lower on the mountain.



Another time, we explored it by thinking about their whole bodies. They lined up from tallest to shortest, and I pointed out the tallest person is also the longest, and asked them where on the staff the longest body would go. They knew: on the bottom. From there, they lined themselves up on the staff: lowest to highest in pitch or longest to shortest body length. This is not only a lesson in pitch, but in math and physics. I didn’t get into the rate of vibration of different strings, which causes the pitch, but that is something they could learn next.


So, after exploring pitch based on length of string, length of bar, length of body, we started a lesson on seeing the difference in pitch by changing the depth of water in jars. We got out some glass jars, and filled them each with a different amount of water. Each of the kids chose a color for the water in their jar, so that we could also distinguish by color.



I asked them to guess which one had the highest and lowest pitch, and their predictions were varied. When we tried it out, we discovered that the one with the most water (the longest depth) had the lowest pitch. In order to understand why, we measured the depth of each, cut out their depth in strips of paper, and laid them flat on the table. It looked like the xylophone, with the longest strip as the lowest pitch! To back up one step, you should also know that when I asked how we could measure the depth, one kid knew right away how to do it, and proceeded to show me: he held up a piece of paper vertically on the table, and marked where the top of the water was.


At this point, the kids were ready to use this instrument we had created together. So, we used three of the five jars/notes to learn Hot Cross Buns. It came pretty easily for all of them, because they understood the concept before trying it. In the video, please notice a couple of key parts. First, one child says after playing it, “See, it does the same as your singing.” What he means is the sound of the jars match the sound of our voices singing it in pitch. Second, one child grasped the concept so swiftly and decided to take it to another level: he experimented with switching the order, and did it exactly backwards. In the video, you can hear him adapting the pitch of his voice to go from low to high. I could tell that he understood what he was doing, because he did it as he was switching the order in which he played the jar/notes.



There are many ways to extend the exploration of pitch further, and we will do some of that in our class. Some examples include ordering various drums by size and pitch, using rubber bands to explore how their length relates to pitch, Playing a stringed instrument, and exploring how pitch changes as you “shorten” the string with your finger pressing down on the string, using bottles and water, and blowing across the top to see how their pitch changes with depth of water (will it be the same as tapping on jars of water?).

Pitch is a concept that provides foundation for a deep understanding of music. It primes the children’s learning to be meaningful in the future, rather than an exercise in memorization or imitation. Developing an understanding of pitch also broadens their learning of subjects that reach beyond music and dip into theories of physics, math and engineering.


The Pace of Play Development

On a recent morning in our outdoor classroom, I found myself balancing the act of being meaningfully engaged with a few of the preschoolers in my care, and periodically glancing around the yard, taking in a little field data on what all the other children were busy doing. This is a familiar state for all preschool teachers. The children with whom I was directly involved were busy experimenting with water. On a large water bin they had placed ramps of various lengths and widths, and they were pouring water down the ramps to the grass, experimenting with design and physics. In this seemingly simple act, by many of the children here, their brains were highly active.


Our current national academic environment is very performance-based, and that can overwhelm kids, teachers, and parents. We read and talk a lot about the push for academic performance at progressively younger ages . For many, pushing too hard academically doesn’t feel healthy. As a result, there seems to be a trend towards more acceptance of play-based learning.

I support the focus on play-based learning, and I’d also like to offer a word of caution about how play can become a performance that may get pushed too hard. Psychologists and educators have outlined six stages of play, including: Unoccupied - Random movement without intention, which is the play of an infant; Solitary - Playing alone independently; Onlooker - Watching other children without participating; Parallel - Playing side-by-side without interacting; Associative - Playing with other children, but the play is not coordinated; Cooperative - Interactive play that is highly coordinated.

Typically what we see in the preschool years is a range from Solitary to Cooperative play. It is often a goal to see a child move through all these stages, and ultimately be comfortable with Cooperative play by the end of their preschool experience. My caution is that moving through the stages of play can be rushed, resulting in the child being pushed to perform at a more advanced level before the child is ready. I’d like to explain the benefits of letting a child be in their current stage of play as needed, without pushing them to move forward before they are ready.

Solitary Play: Children need to experience solitary play, as it gives them the freedom to think, to explore, and to create, without expectations placed upon them. In solitary play, they are free to use their imaginations, they can develop physical and mental skills, and they can be fully engaged in their exploration. Many of the skills developed in this stage contribute to later learning, such as language, spatial reasoning, creativity, and abstract thinking. Children also acquire self-knowledge during this stage, a very useful life skill.

Onlooker Play: In this stage of play, children watch and are mentally engaged, even though they are not physically engaged in play with others. During this stage, important social learning takes place. Children in this stage of play are mentally practicing what it would be like to interact, priming themselves for the next stage of play.  They are taking note of the physical, social, verbal, and behavioral interactions that they witness. When children are given time to experience this stage of play at their own pace, they will proceed with more confidence and self-assurance.

Parallel Play: During parallel play children operate in their own private worlds, but in the larger context of other people and ideas. They are simultaneously observing their peers and exploring on their own. During this stage of play, they often develop new understandings about language and expression, and about social and emotional boundaries. These are vital lessons for future social and emotional learning.

Associative Play: In associative play, children play together, but not in an organized group with rules or goals in mind. Important skills learned during associative play include sharing, cooperation, and problem-solving skills. Associative play allows children to try out developing beliefs about the world. This stage is important because it marks the child’s interest in peers, rather than simply the play itself. This interest is critical in leading to the development of friendship.

Cooperative Play: During this stage of play, children are motivated to play together in groups, with norms and goals in mind. They develop problem-solving skills as a group and create community. This stage of play allows children to develop a sense of purpose and leads to development of peer leadership and collaboration.

Rather than focusing on the end goal of cooperative play, it is beneficial to understand and truly value each stage of play development and to let children move through the stages at their own pace. There is no need to push a child into a more developed stage of play. A child who is still most comfortable playing alongside peers, but not yet interacting with peers, needs time and space to develop the skills of parallel play. It is important to keep in mind there may be times when children need to participate in more solitary play, even if they have reached a more advanced stage of play development. As a teacher, part of my job is to track what stage of play children are operating in and to keep the play opportunities open enough so when they are ready, they will naturally begin to move into another stage. In most cases, there is no need to push a child into social interactions that may be stressful. On occasion, a child may need encouragement to take the next step, but most of the time, it comes naturally. One of the great benefits of preschool experience is that children have ample opportunities to navigate social situations that foster all the play stages.


The children working at the water bin that day were deciphering how the speed of the water and the distance it traveled changed according to the length of the ramp, a lesson in engineering. They were using their fine and gross motor skills to lift, carry, and place the ramps delicately on the bin. They were using spatial reasoning to determine the most effective placement of the ramps. They were navigating the complex world of sharing space with others, which involves awareness of where their body ends in space (a skill of proprioception that develops for quite a while beyond preschool), reading their peers’ facial expressions to determine their emotional state, developing flexibility by waiting for a turn, fine-tuning verbal skills when asking for a turn, and using executive functioning to create win-win situations.

As a preschool teacher who encourages learning through play, I am accustomed to seeing through this lens. We offer these opportunities, and when we do, children find and develop their own skills. What I want readers to know is that these skills are noticed and valued, and that the beauty of it all is that the child knows how to learn these things when given the opportunity to explore. When they do, we will see and point out, which will help to make connections between experience and learning. This is a cornerstone of becoming life-long learners.

YouTube: Stuart Brown: Play is More Than Fun

The Power of Play: how spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. David Elkind, PhD.

The Power of Presence in Early Childhood

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” -Mary Oliver

For awhile now, the idea of the power of presence has been visited and revisited in my thinking about work with young children. Last year, during our professional development course led by Karen Baker at Allen Creek, we studied play, and I learned about the concept of “watched play.” It was a familiar concept to me as a parent and a teacher of young children, because it is something that children clearly crave and need, but what I learned from the seminar is why it is valuable to children. There seems to be a common urge for adults to encourage independence in children, and unfortunately, this can get in the way of the need that children have for adults to simply be attentive. We adults can get distracted by so many things: our phones, our own needs, the needs of other children, making plans, the drive to train our children to become achievers. I hope to make a case for the power of just being there, and paying attention.

On a blog post about the gift of presence, Parker Palmer reminds us that “the human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.” I believe this sums up a child’s most basic desire: to be seen just as s/he is. As their caregivers, we can do that. Yes, there are ways that we will need to guide them, and there are boundaries they will need help with. But, we can also just be there to attend to their being and notice what they are doing and how they are doing it. Noticing who they are is a gift we can give them. Presence in this sense is more about being than doing. It is about bearing witness to who they are, about helping to carry the burden and delight of emotions, about validating and affirming. It allows for a connection between the child and attending adult that has a sort of silent power. This power gives the child the message that someone is thinking about him or her, it helps them to develop self-regulation, helps with mentalization. From the child’s perspective, this experience is interactive, even if the adult feels s/he is not “doing anything.”

Watched play can be awkward for some adults. It can feel unproductive, especially to those who tend to be driven by achievement. Some parents or teachers want to have things they can do or say to feel like they are being an active participant in the child’s development. It may be helpful to have some phrases that encourage the connection of attentiveness. In my experience, I find it helpful to make observations about what the child is doing, saying, or feeling. Simply stating it assures him or her of the adult’s presence and attentiveness. Beginning with “I notice . . . “ can be a useful way to get started. I also find the practice of saying, “thank you” to the child to be helpful. “Thank you for showing me . . . “ “Thank you for telling me that.” “Thank you for waiting,” etc.

Dr. Susan Sherkow studied the concept of “watched play,” and describes it as “a state of mutual engagement from the child’s perspective, and therefore interactive.” She found that simply the presence of an attentive adult can validate a child’s identity, and eventually help to improve their capacity to be alone. The experience for the child allows him or her to regulate their emotions and their impulses confidently. It allows the child to begin to differentiate between self and other, and to learn how to interpret and respond to others’ behaviors. In the process, the child internalizes these learned skills, which makes their eventual independence more possible.

The power that presence has on a child’s development is not just related to their play experience. Children need this presence from the adults around them when they are experiencing big emotions, too. Hand in Hand parenting teaches a concept called Staylistening. This is a method of just being with a child while s/he experiences big emotions. Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand parentings describes the need for Staylistening here:

We are so accustomed to seeing the world only from our own vantage point. If we don’t feel sad, no one else should, either. But children’s feelings are like their own personal weather system, which is affected by forces often unseen by you.
To tell your child he should feel happy when he is sad is roughly as effective as telling a rainstorm to go away. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel so sad” or “I’ll stay right here with you while it’s hard” give your child permission to address and work through bad feelings. Phrases like “It’s only a torn paper. Quit acting like such a baby!” only shame a child. They work against your goal of helping your child rebuild his sense of well-being.
As you listen, you are not necessarily condoning your child’s feelings, nor are you spoiling him. You are helping him recover. Children cry only when they are too upset to think. Feelings of upset can overpower a child and drive him to do things that don’t make sense. As you listen, you drain the power these feelings have over your child. His own good judgment will return once you’ve listened thoroughly.

The chaotic life of a parent of young children and the atmosphere of a classroom with 10-15 young children can make it seem impossible to carve out time and space to create this kind of attentiveness. However, it can be as simple as a shift in perspective about what the child needs, and about the value of what we have to give them: our presence and our attention. It doesn’t have to take long. It just requires intention.