How Music Affects the Science of Reading

A mother taps out a beat to a song in Kindermusik class. Practicing steady beat is one way to support the science of reading.

The Science of Reading is kind of a buzzword these days in the early education and parenting worlds, but what does it really mean and what role does music play?

In a nutshell, the Science of Reading is a catch-all term for the massive amounts of research that look at how our brains learn to read through decoding, phonemic awareness, and more. It doesn’t just happen, it’s science, and educators around the world are tapping into its framework.

What might be missing from traditional classrooms and at-home efforts? Music!

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Why Steady Beat Matters + How to Assess It

A teacher engages her preschool class in mimicking drum taps to test steady beat competency.

You know that thing that makes you want to rock, sway, clap, or tap to the music? That’s steady beat—the ongoing, repetitive pulse that occurs in songs, chants, and rhymes. 

But it’s more than just an ideal skill for dance or instrument lessons—steady beat is a critical aspect of early childhood development that affects everything from walking, to reading, to dribbling a basketball.

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3 Ways to Teach Creativity to Young Kids

Three young children bang on pots and pans outside; 3 Ways to Teach Creativity to Young Kids

How to teach creativity and nurture it often gets lumped into “the arts,” but creativity is about so much more than that. It has to do with asking the right questions, encouraging pretend play in different settings, providing starting points and watching (or nurturing vs leading) the problem-solving at work.

One of the best places to turn up the volume on creative learning is outside. We asked Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten (now part of Highlights for Children) Meghan Fitzgerald, some of her team’s favorite go-tos when it comes to breaking down creativity into digestible, reachable, and teachable ideas for teachers and families. Here’s what she had to say.


What is creativity?

The term “creativity” gets bounced around frequently— it’s one of those words that is both common and nuanced, so we often miss all the underlying shades of meaning. On the flipside, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t agree that creativity is core to what makes us human, and the earlier we can support creative learning the better as it helps kids become more ready to learn, to maintain strong relationships, and to prepare for all that they’ll face as a generation.

Creativity has been core to Highlights for Children, Tinkergarten and Kindermusik from day one. Plus, inspiring young children to be creative is more necessary than ever for the kids we love and teach. At Tinkergarten, we define creativity as “the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and make them happen.” 

We need creativity to do so many things, from expressing our ideas to solving problems to developing strong relationships and more. The world our kids will inherit is increasingly complex, and the pace of change is only accelerating. In order for all of us to survive and thrive, their generation is going to have to dream up and implement innovative solutions to some really thorny problems. 

A father paints alongside his daughter. Using things like paint to recreate items from their original state is one easy way to teach creativity.

Perhaps Sir Ken Robinson said it best, “Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” This imperative is why you’ll find “Creativity” right alongside literacy and STEAM in a Highlights preschool classroom. “Creative is one of our 4 C’s at Highlights, and it’s key to how, for decades, we’ve supported children in becoming their best selves,” explains Emily Hawkins of Highlights, Early Learning Team.

How do we teach creativity in the early years?

When we harness the power of play-based learning, we give kids the tools to become their best creative selves.

There’s no doubt that supporting all kids’ creativity is mission critical, and the good news is, they’re natural at being creative! With intentional and supportive experiences, they can build a strong and lasting foundation in creative thinking and action to carry forward. In short, creativity is a super-power that will help our children navigate and change the world.

Here are three of our favorite ways to inspire creativity in young children.

Prioritize imaginative play.

A 3-year-old child pretends to stir a pot during a Tinkergarten class. Pretend play in nature is one of the best ways to teach creativity.

When kids use their imaginations and engage in pretend play, they develop a key component of creativity—cognitive flexibility. We need this ability to adjust and adapt to new information in order to create new things. Kids are natural at pretending, so all we need as grown ups is to offer space, time and the right invitations.

You can:

  • Look for preschool programs and play-based activities that provide regular opportunities to engage kids in enriching stories, pretend play contexts and imaginative play projects
  • Work together with kids to turn a whole corner of your classroom or living room into outer space. 
  • Stoke kids empathy and creativity by setting up a pretend rescue shelter for stuffed animals.  
  • Devote a week or two to “bakery” play, turning a table into a bake shop! Or, if you have outdoor space, build a  mud pie factory!

Support divergent thinking through play.

Kids are born creative geniuses—wonderfully adept at divergent thinking, the aspect of creativity that we draw on in order to generate endless possibilities in novel situations. We can support this by giving kids plenty of playful practice with generating their own ideas.

Here are 3 no-cost activities you can try—watch this video to learn more!

A child balances on wooden stumps outside. Tinkergarten explains how to support divergent thinking through play in this short video.
  1. Explore what we at Tinkergarten call “Not A” play. Start with an everyday object like a box or a stick, then call it a “Not a Box” or “Not a Stick” and imagine and act out, instead of all of the many things it could be. You can do this with sounds, too! Use your voice or an instrument to make a sound. What could that sound be? Who or what could have made it? What kind of song can we build on if it becomes the first note?
  2. Continue creative conversations with questions like “Yes, that is a fishing pole…and what else could it be?” Want even more ways to spark improvisation in kids’ play? Check out this video.
  3. Go outside and encourage play with natural objects like rocks, sticks, or dirt. These “top toys of all time” can be used in limitless ways, so all you have to do is give kids a little boost and watch them create. 

Explore the Three Bs.

When the Tinkergarten team designed our Creativity curriculum, we leveraged what neuroscientists term the “three Bs”— breaking, bending, and blending. The “three B’s” are cognitive functions that underlie all innovative thinking. In our brains, we: 

  • Bend concepts, stretching them to their limits as we create, 
  • Break ideas apart, and 
  • Blend them together with others in order to innovate. 

When little kids learn, they use physical experiences to build a foundation for cognitive or thought-based understanding later on. That’s why these 3 basic strategies of bending, breaking and blending can be helpful when we are mapping children’s play/exploration to development of creativity. So, provide kids lots of opportunities to break, bend and blend objects! 

Here are a few of our favorites for supporting the Three Bs:

  • Parts & Wholes: Break up paper or objects from nature, then rearrange the pieces to create a fresh design. 
  • Weave: Use rubber bands to turn a piece of cardboard into a portable “loom” so kids can bend and weave objects in and out. 
  • Vocalize: Play with “bending” or changing your voice as you make sounds or sing. Try to sing a song everyone knows at a slow pace. Sing it again fast.

Keep learning about creativity!

A 4-year-old boy holds up a rock he transformed with a marker. Reimagining objects from their original state is a way to teach creativity and let the child lead the activity.

Thanks to our friends at Tinkergarten for these engaging activity ideas! We hope they help you take teaching creativity to the next level.

Curious to learn more about how purposeful outdoor play can support essential skills like creativity? Try a free 2-week trial of Tinkergarten for Teachers or Tinkergarten for Families. Would you love a curriculum based on Highlights’ decades of experience in helping kids be their most curious, creative, caring, and confident selves? Try a free month of Highlights’ Preschool with a Purpose! However you support kids’ natural creativity in your teaching, we cheer you on and wish you joy in the process.

This post was authored by Meghan Fitzgerald, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten.

How Pre- and Postnatal Singing Support Secure Attachment

Mom sings to baby in a Kindermusik class to promote secure attachment.

The bond between caregiver and infant is one of the most critical factors in positive whole-child development, and the keyword is secure attachment. 

Secure attachment doesn’t mean constant baby-wearing or helicopter parenting—it does mean a consistent series of positive and nurturing interactions between caregivers and infants that form the foundation for healthy social-emotional and cognitive growth. 

So, how do you know if you’re making these connections happen? Singing can help.

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3 Musical Ways to Support Neurodivergent Learners

Child dances to music with scarves. Interpretive dance is an ideal multisensory outlet for neurodivergent learners.

It may seem counterintuitive, but neurodivergent learners thrive with the right multi-sensory activities. Music—a multi-sensory activity that stimulates all parts of the brain at once—promotes everything from self-regulation to emotional expression.

And that turns tricky transitions and long days into beautiful learning moments (for children and their special grownups).

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3 Ways to Build Grownup Social-Emotional Growth

A mom dances and builds social-emotional growth with her daughter in a Kindermusik class.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) for children has been a huge focus in early childhood development over the past 10 years, but what about “Grownup Social-Emotional Growth?” It turns out, it’s just as critical for parents and caregivers to fill this specific brain bucket on a daily basis.

Not to be confused with a fancy face mask or a day at the beach, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”  

And while it can be hard to focus with little ones around, it’s important to recognize that parents and caregivers shouldn’t put social-emotional growth on hold for alone time.

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3 Ways to Enhance Phonemic Awareness with Music

Mom and toddler son sing songs together to boost phonemic awareness

You’ve probably heard the word phonics, but what exactly is phonemic awareness? Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds—phonemes—in spoken words, a crucial pre-reading and speech skill.

Research shows that programs focused on phonemic and phonological awareness significantly increase children’s reading abilities in early years, and can be further enhanced by music. What does this look like at home? Here are a few things you can do that sound like learning, but feel like fun!

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Simple Gifts for Kids: Batteries Not Required

Sandblocks and other handheld instruments are perfect gifts for older toddlers.

Is your head spinning in a whirlpool of holiday ads? Remember this: simple gifts for kids will keep on giving.

Between Black Friday deals, Cyber Monday savings, and all the other holiday sales, it’s hard to research before you buy. The one piece of research you can always count on?Simple toys are BEST for early childhood development.

Stay stress-free this season with our Top 5 Tips for Buying the Perfect Simple Gifts for Kids.

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