Hitting the Right Notes: Using Music in Storytime

This week, we had a musical guest (Mr. Daniel) in place of my regular storytime. He did a wonderful job getting the kids moving and singing, and playing along with shakers and bells. He also did a number of songs in Spanish and Portuguese, and it was moving to see the faces of some of the parents and caregivers when they heard him singing some of the traditional songs of their native countries. (One family even followed him from one library to another, because they were so excited for their kids to hear songs from Brazil).

Watching him reminded me of all of the reasons why it’s so important to encourage families to sing and make music together, and why I make it such a focus in my own storytimes. So I wanted to share some of my tips for choosing and adapting songs for storytime.

Why Use Music in Storytime

Apart from the fact that songs and rhymes provide an easy way to regain the attention of wandering toddlers, and give sitting kids a chance to get their wiggles out in between books, they also help parents and caregivers get used to singing with their kids.

I’ve found that some parents are uncomfortable singing to their children, because they think that they “can’t sing.” I always tell them it doesn’t matter how well they sing, but singing itself is really important.

A few of the benefits of hearing songs in early childhood are

  • Phonological awareness: a fancy way of saying that singing teaches kids to recognize the sounds that make up the words in their native language. This is a key pre-literacy skill that can make it easier for young children to learn to read later on. Because songs (especially kids songs) use rhyming words, they are especially good for reinforcing this knowledge in a fun and memorable way.
  • Vocabulary: Songs also offer a fun and memorable way for kids to learn new words in their native language. The more words a child is exposed to in their early years, the easier it will be for them to learn to read once they enter school. As a children’s librarian, I was used to hearing that kids who were regularly read aloud to were more likely to become successful readers in school, but I didn’t fully understand why until my own kids were learning to read. When kids first start sounding out words on their own, it’s important that the words they are trying to read are words that they already know. That’s what gives them that “Aha!” moment when they recognize what the word in front of them is. And it far easier to remember words that are set to music. My kids’ middle school teacher uses songs to help her students memorize the names of the U.S. Presidents and the U.S. States in order, and my oldest daughter’s high school Spanish teacher started each week with the “Cancion de la Semana,” (song of the week), which my daughter still remembers.
  • Listening Skills: A lot of popular children’s songs, like If You’re Happy and You Know It and I’m a Little Teapot, require kids to watch and listen in order to follow the directions or copy the motions in the song.
  • Motor Skills: Most children’s songs involve some kind of movement, either large motor (clapping, stomping, jumping, etc.) or fine motor (fingerplays and songs like The Itsy Bitsy Spider). This helps them develop coordination, balance, and the kinds of fine motor skills required for writing later on.

What Songs to Use

The best storytime songs are simple and easy to remember. They are frequently based on familiar tunes, like Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star (I’m embarrassed to say that I was an adult before I realized that Twinkle, Twinkle, The Alphabet Song, and Baa Baa, Black Sheep all use the same tune).

Two things I look for in a storytime song are:

  • Opportunities for kids to suggest ideas. This is a great thing to model to parents and caregivers, since it provides them a way to extend the song-play into their daily lives. I recently read the book The Itsy Bitsy Spider by Iza Trapani, which includes lots of additional verses about the spider’s adventures. The day after that storytime, a parent called our library to ask if she could borrow the book, because after hearing it, her son had started coming up with his own verses to the song. Some of my favorite songs for kids to suggest ideas are: Old MacDonald Had a Farm, If All the Raindrops, Rainbow ‘Round Me, and Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee. (See the links at the bottom of this post to hear the tunes).
  • Opportunities for kids to move their bodies. Although some kids are shy about participating, most of them are excited to get a chance to move around. My favorites of these are Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!, The Wheels on the Bus, If You’re Happy and You Know It, and We Bounce and We Bounce and We Stop.

Keeping It Interesting

Surprisingly, kids never seem to tire of the old standbys like Wheels on the Bus. But I still like to find ways to surprise them with some simple changes like:

  • Changing the tempo. An easy way to get kids engaged in a song is to vary the speed. I often start off a class visit by singing The Alphabet Song. We start off at a normal tempo and then sing it again slightly faster, and again as fast as we can. I usually end The Wheels on the Bus by singing the first verse fast as well.
  • Changing the words. With older kids, I love to switch the babies and grown-up verses on the Wheels on the Bus, so the Grown-ups on the bus cry, “Waah! Waah! Waah!” and the kids say, “Shhh! Shhh! Shhh!” I usually add in a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a tiny kitten on the bus too. With The Itsy Bitsy Spider, I like to do a verse about the “great big giant spider.” For If You’re Happy and You Know It, I like to add verses about other emotions (“If you’re sad and you know it, cry, ‘Boo hoo!'”) It’s great for kids to realize that they can change songs and make them their own. Changing the words is also an easy way to come up with a song to go along with a picture book. I’m A Little Teapot can become I’m a Little Dinosaur or I’m a Little Kitty Cat. The Wheels on the Bus can become The Waves at the Beach, with verses all about things you see near the ocean.
  • Adding props. I always end my Musical Storytime by handing out shakers, so the kids can play along. But I also love to use play scarves and other props when I can. There are a lot of great scarf songs, but my favorites are probably Popcorn Kernels, Icky Sticky Bubblegum, and The Wishy Washy Washer Woman (see the links at the bottom for more info).

Adding Instruments

For years I sang all my songs a cappella, or played music on a CD, but then our staff CD player broke, and I finally worked up the nerve to play my ukulele. To my surprise, it was pretty easy. Most kids songs only require one or two chords, and you can use a very simple strumming pattern just to add a basic accompaniment. If you have a small group, it’s really empowering to carry a ukulele or guitar around and let the kids strum along to a song while you change the chords. For more about learning the ukulele, check out my post Uke Can Play.

My Favorite Storytime Songs

Here are a few of my all-time favorite songs, with YouTube links where available, or my own recordings. Where available, I’ve also linked to past posts that include the lyrics, chords, and any notes on how I adapted the song for storytime.

Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee

I use a variation of the version performed here by Dr. Jean, where we sing about a different animal for each verse (I take suggestions from the kids). Unlike the old camp version of the song, nobody gets squished!

Brush Your Teeth by Raffi

Icky Sticky Bubblegum

I do this one with play scarves, and have the kids suggest different body parts for the gum to stick to. Then we count 1, 2, 3…and throw the scarves in the air as we shout, “Unstuck!” Click on the triangle below to hear the tune.

If All the Raindrops

I have the kids suggest foods that they wish would fall from the sky, and I choose two or three to sing about for each verse.

If You’re Happy and You Know It

I sing about a different emotion for each verse: If you’re sad and you know it, cry, “Boohoo!”; If you’re angry and you know it, say, “I’m mad!”, etc.

Popcorn Kernels

I do this one with play scarves, as demonstrated in the JBrary video below:

‘Rainbow Round Me by Ruth Pelham

For each verse, I ask the kids to suggest things that they might see outside their window.

Silly Pizza Song by Rachel de Azevedo Coleman

I teach the kids the signs for pizza and cheese, as shown in the Signing Time video below. Then, for each verse, I ask the kids to suggest different foods they would like on their pizza.

These Are My Glasses by Laurie Berkner

I do this one pretty much the same way that Laurie Berkner demonstrates in her video below.

Two Little Blackbirds

I do this one as a fingerplay, with each thumb representing a blackbird. When they “fly away,” I hide them behind my back, then bring them back out in front of me when they “come back.” Each verse uses a different opposite: two little blackbirds sitting on a cloud. One was quiet, and the other was loud… Two little blackbirds sitting on a gate. One was early, and the other was…late!

We Bounce and We Bounce and We Stop

I add in different motions for each verse, then vary the speed, or add in pauses before the “Stop” to keep the kids on their toes. This song works really well for a wide range of ages.

The Wheels on the Bus

I like to add in silly verses about lions or dinosaurs or mice on the bus, then sing the first verse again, making the wheels (And o

The Wishy Washy Washer Woman

I do this one with play scarves, as demonstrated in the Imagine More Story Adventures video below:

Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!

I do a slight variation on the Jiggle Jam version below, and have the kids crouch down at the beginning, then jump up when we say, “Blast off!”

I’m always looking for new storytime songs, so if you have any favorites, please share them in the comments below.

Happy Singing!


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