Yes, Uke Can! A Ukulele Workshop for Kids

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Yesterday, my coworker Nicol Cassidy-White and I led our first ukulele workshop at the library.  We had advertised it for kids aged 5-10 and their parents, and required registration to keep the group small.

Most of the kids brought their own ukuleles, but we had a few to lend out to those who didn’t, thanks to a grant from the Mockingbird Foundation, a wonderful volunteer-run foundation for music education (it was founded by fans of the band Phish).  I had originally asked Mockingbird for $300 to buy new rhythm instruments for the kids to play at musical storytime, since our old instruments had gotten ragged and broken. To my surprise, they actually gave us $500, enough to buy 6 ukuleles with cases, which we are hoping to use for future classes and possibly even lend out to library patrons.

Our class consisted of 9 kids and a few parents who actively helped their children.  They covered our whole age span: one five year-old, one six, three seven year-olds, an eight year-old, two nine year-olds, and one ten year-old.  As you can imagine, our class was a bit, well, loud, especially in our tiny library.  In between exercises, there was a lot of random strumming, so we started using the command “Ukes Up!” and holding our ukes upright in front of us whenever we were explaining the next step.

Here was the structure for our class:


As soon as we had the group all together in a circle, we did a brief overview of the parts of the ukulele (body, fretboard, tuning pegs).  We asked the kids if they knew why the strings made noise, and had them strum a string and watch it vibrate.  We talked about the hole in the body and why it was there (I had them sing into the hole so they could hear how it made their voices louder).  And then we talked about the tuning pegs, and how they made the strings tighter (and the sound higher) or looser (and lower).

After that, Nicol and I went around the circle to help everyone tune up.  This took a little while. Nicol had a ukulele tuner, and I had the GuitarToolkit app on my iPhone (I love this app, by the way.  It comes with a digital tuner, a metronome, and diagrams for all of the guitar and ukulele chords).  When everyone was tuned up, we had them play the open strings to hear how each note sounded, and that this made a tune called “My Dog Has Fleas.”  I also told them the names of the notes for each string (from the top string to the bottom: G C E A), and that I remember them with the silly phrase, “Good Cats Eat Apples.”  (I should probably come up with something that makes more sense, like Great Cockroaches Eat Anything).

We also talked about the different ways of holding the uke: either down in your lap, or close to your chest.  We showed them how to cup the fretboard in their open left hands, with their right hands coming across the sound board.  We actually had two left-handed kids in the group, a statistical anomaly (but then both my kids are left-handed, and my husband and I are righties, so go figure).  This definitely made it harder for them to play, and I suggested that they get their ukes restrung upside down at a local music store.


Earlier this summer, when I was showing my son how to play the ukulele, he complained about the strings hurting his fingers when he strummed.  For the class, I ordered some felt picks from, and handed them out to the kids.  Many of them opted to use the pick for the rest of the class, although we did show them all the different ways to strum otherwise: with the fleshy part of their thumb, or their index fingers.  I often use all of my fingers.

We talked about how you can strum down across the strings, or up, or alternate between the two.  And then we had them practice strumming together as a group.  I was surprised at how quickly they picked this up.  (I volunteer to teach music at my son’s school, and getting the class to play anything together is usually the hardest part).


After practicing strumming together, it was time to talk about chords.  I explained that chords are two or more notes that are played at the same time, and that most chords on the ukulele are made of four notes, because of the four strings.  Then we showed the kids how to hold their fingers on the fretboard to make a C chord.  We had little white dot stickers to put on the spot where their fingers should go.

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For the C chord, you usually hold your ring finger on the third fret of the bottom string.  This is obviously really hard for kids to do, since they don’t usually use their ring fingers independently.  I showed them a trick I learned from Alfred’s Kid’s Ukulele Course 1, which suggests that you can put your index finger on the first fret, and your middle finger on the second, to give your ring finger more support on the third.  Mostly though, we just let the kids hold the note however it felt the most comfortable (a lot of them used their index or middle fingers).

There are lots of songs you can play with just the C chord.  We had them try three: Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Are You Sleeping? (Frère Jacques), and The Itsy Bitsy Spider (Nicol had the great idea to have them play the Itsy Bitsy Spider softly at first.  Then we did the Great Big Hairy Spider, and had them play loudly).  Again, I was really surprised at how well this went.  Yes, some of them were having a hard time holding the note, and many of the ukes (being new) were slipping out of tune by this point.  But for the most part, they were strumming together and singing.

At this point, we had been going for about 40 minutes, and I could see that some of the kids were starting to lose focus.  I wanted them to have some idea of where to go from this point though, so we showed them how to read a chord chart, by imagining that the ukulele is standing upright, and lining up the chart with the strings to see where their fingers should go.  For example, here is the chord chart for a C chord:

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We briefly showed them how to make an F chord, which was really hard, especially for the younger kids with small hands, since they have to reach all the way to the top string.  For the five year-old, I suggested that his dad hold the chord while he strummed.  A few of the older kids were able to manage it on their own.


We briefly had them practice switching between C and F, and then we tried a song, just for fun.  The song was Everything is Awesome from The Lego Movie.  Here’s how it goes with the chord changes:


Everything is awesome!

F                    C                                        F

Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

F                    C               F                                C

Everything is awesome when we’re living our dream.


Admittedly, this part of the class sounded less than awesome.  The chords themselves are challenging, and switching between them even more so, but at least it gave them the general idea.  (In retrospect, it might have been easier for them to learn G7, and play something like The Wheels on the Bus, but I was kind of hoping to use something current and popular).

So that was the end of our class, although one 7 year-old, who was the only one with experience playing, asked it she could perform a song, and she did!  She sang Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which she played with F and C7 (C7 is actually even easier than C, because you put your index finger on the first fret of the bottom string).  I thought she did really well, and told her it took me years to work up the nerve to play my ukulele in front of a group, which is true.

We sent them home with their picks, and a handout I made up (you can print it from here: BEGINNING UKULELE (.doc) or BEGINNING UKULELE (.pdf, along with a chord chart of 8 basic chords from  We also had them fill out a contact sheet to be notified of future classes.  In the future, we are hoping to offer four-week sessions for very small groups (no more than 4 at a time), and group them by age (kids, tweens, teens, and adults).

Overall I was happy and relieved with how well the class went, since I had no idea how much kids under the age of 10 could pick up in one class.  But I was really pleased with how receptive the kids were, and how hard they tried, especially on a sunny, summer Saturday afternoon.  I’m excited about teaching more, and supporting the Ukulele Revolution!  (Ukuleles are everywhere nowadays.  If you don’t believe me, just listen to the music on most TV commercials).  Plus, I just read an article yesterday about all of the many positives ways learning an instrument affects the developing brain:

I’ll leave you with a joke that one of the boys described to the class (I found this cartoon version later on Modern Life Is Awesome):



If you have any questions or suggestions, please write them in the comments below.   In the meantime, happy playing!


Abracadabra! Stories about Magic


I was nervous about this week’s storytime, because I had advertised it on our Summer Learning Program fliers as a chance to learn a simple magic trick.  I’m really no good at magic tricks.  I’m not good with puppets either, or those great big picture books that make me feel like an exceptionally clumsy Lilliputian.  I even struggle with flannel boards, because the pieces fall off, or a toddler wanders off with them just as I’m getting to the good part.  But I’m really no good at magic tricks, and I struggled to find one that was easy enough to teach to kids of a wide range of ages, and not too hard or expensive to make.

But I ended up having the best time at this storytime, mostly because it was a wonderful group of families, both old and new, and they were all so interactive and engaged.  Plus the trick went off okay too.  Here’s what we read:


Georgie and the Magician by Robert Bright ( link)

Georgie was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I was surprised to find out many years later that there are actually several books about the friendly little ghost, his friends Miss Oliver (the owl) and Herman (the cat), and Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker.  In this story, the Whittaker’s barn burns down, leaving the harmless old cow homeless, and the town decides to hold a benefit to help pay for a new one.  Mr. Whittaker offers to do magic tricks, but he doesn’t really know how (kind of like me).  So Georgie and his friends secretly help out, surprising Mr. Whittaker, and making the benefit a huge success.  This is an older book, and our copy wasn’t in great shape, but it held the kids’ interest, and they laughed when it got to the magic show.


The Magic Rabbit by Annette LeBlanc Cate ( link)

When I first brought this book home from the library, my daughter would demand to hear it over and over.  I love it too.  Ray the Magician and his rabbit assistant Bunny are best friends who do a magic act together.  But one day, just as Ray is pulling Bunny out of his hat, another performer crashes into him, and his dog chases Bunny into a busy street.  Luckily, Bunny makes it to safety, but finds himself lost and alone in the park, until he finds a trail of gold stars that lead right to his hat in the subway station.  The kids loved the part where Ray unsuspectingly puts the hat (with Bunny inside) on top of his head.  This is a sweet story, with lovely, mostly black-and-white illustrations.

milo's hat

Milo’s Hat Trick by Jon Agee ( link)

This one is always fun to read.  Milo the Magician, hoping to catch a rabbit for his hat trick, catches a bear instead.  To his surprise, the bear knows how to jump in and out of hats.  He agrees to help Milo with his act, but, when Milo grabs the wrong hat by mistake, the bear winds up popping out of the hat in the middle of a restaurant.  A wacky, funny story that got lots of laughs from both kids and parents.


Poof! by John O’Brien ( link)

This was a nice, short book to end with.  A wizard and his wife are arguing about whose turn it is to take care of their crying baby, until the wizard waves his wand and, “Poof!” turns the baby into a cat.  His wife waves her wand and, “Poof!” turns the cat into a dog.  The magical battle continues until both wizards and baby all end up as ducks living “quackily ever after.”  The kids enjoyed joining in on the repeated, “Poof!’s”



I actually wrote this song for the storytime because I was having such a hard time finding a song about magic.  I was really nervous about performing it, because, even though I didn’t tell anyone I had written it, I was still vaguely worried that people might start throwing juice boxes or Cheerios, and yelling, “That’s not a real song!”  Luckily, that didn’t happen (or maybe they were short on ammo).  Anyway, here’s the song (click on the triangle to hear how it sounds).  If I ever work up the nerve to sing it again, I’d like to ask the kids for suggestions for magic words and things they would like to do if they had a magic wand, and adapt the song accordingly.  (I did ask my storytime group that question, and many of them said they’d like to make themselves invisible).

Once I found a magic wand (C G)
Out floating in a stream. (F C)
I waved it at my dinner plate, (C G)
And my beets became ice cream! (F G C)

I said, “Abracadabra! (C G)
Alakazaam! (F G)
Abracadabra!” (C G)
And my peas turned into jam. (F G C)

So then I brought my magic wand
To school with me one day.
When Teacher said, “It’s time to work.”
I said, “I’d rather play.”

I said, “Abracadabra!
Hocus pocus!” too.
And my class was at the zoo!
Being taught by a kangaroo.

So if you find a magic wand
Out floating in a stream.
I hope that it will bring to you
Whatever you may dream.

You’ll say, “Abracadabra!
Presto chango!” too.
Many things will come to you.
Like a treehouse with a view,
And a unicorn or two,
And a chocolate mansion too.
May your every dream come true.

Little Bunny Foo Foo

Little Bunny Foo-Foo is an old standard of mine, to the point that my boss at my previous library job once gave me a Bunny Foo-Foo shirt.  The kids always love it, and it’s what I call an “uppy-downy,” meaning that it gives them a chance to move around and work off some energy.  The version I do is like the one in this YouTube video by Hannah Heller: .  (I have the kids hop on the “hopping through the forest line”).

CRAFT: “Magic” Magic Wands

The floating wand

The floating wand


The secret (a straightened paperclip handle stuck in the back of the wand) 

I got this idea from  I was worried that it might be too obvious a trick, but when I waved the wand over the audience at the end, the kids seemed genuinely impressed.  It’s basically a wand made of black and white construction paper.  You stick a straight pin or paper clip (I used a paper clip to be safer), into the middle of the wand and hold the end of it between your fingers.  If you hold your hand so the audience can’t see the pin, it looks like the wand is floating in mid-air.  Then you can quickly pull the pin out to let your audience inspect the wand.

I had the kids make their own wands by rolling up a sheet of black construction paper (I put out chopsticks to roll the paper around, although not everyone used them).  They taped or glued the rolls together, then glued small rectangles of white paper on each end for the tips.  Once the wands were made, I used a thumbtack to poke a hole in the back of each one, and showed the kids how to insert the straightened paper clip into the hole and hold it to create the illusion that the wand was floating.

I had a second magic trick, involving a dollar bill and two paper clips (if you set it up right, the clips hook together when you open the bill), but this one ended up being a bit too difficult.  This was the trick, in case you’re curious:  I had the kids make their own bills out of green paper and help them put the paper clips on, but it usually took a few tries to get the trick to work.


The Wizard, the Fairy and the Magic Chicken by Helen Lester; illustrated by Lynn Munsinger ( link)

A delightfully silly book about three magical rivals.  Each one brags that he or she is the best, and in the process they create a gang of monsters that they have to work together in order to fight.  I love Lester and Munsinger’s collaborations, which include Hooray for Wodney Wat and A Porcupine Named Fluffy.

Simple Magic Tricks: Easy to Learn Magic Tricks with Everyday Objects by Jon Allen ( link)

This is one of the most user-friendly magic books I’ve come across.  It includes 70 fairly easy tricks you can do with rubber bands, rope, cards, and other common household objects.

What are your favorite books about magic?