Building Connections Through Music-Based Learning Centers: Music-Based Learning

By: Suzanne L. Burton, Ph. D.
University of Delaware

Imagine having a learning center in your classroom that fosters the artistic and creative side of children while at the same time helps children to build skills in other academic content areas. Imagine a center that uses music-based experiences as tools for building comprehension and content connections. While this type of learning center may be unique due to its musical nature, it is certain to appeal to children of all ages.

Since children learn best through interaction with their environment and through active participation, a learning center is an optimal way to structure and extend the learning of your students. Children are naturally drawn to music. Musical expression flows freely from children as they interact with their environment. Through music, children learn about themselves and their place in the world. Music is a part of their play and an innate part of their very being. Structuring a learning center with music at the foundation will not only build on the natural connection between children and music, but also lead to deep, meaningful learning experiences. A music-based learning center may be created to strengthen and build connections with content areas such as dramatic play, art, science, social studies, and language arts as well as encouraging musical expression and experimentation.

Teacher's Role

Your role in the creation and participation in the learning center will take different forms as determined by the children's ages and needs. You may function as facilitator, guide, active participant or as an observer of the children's learning. Asking questions of the children, "What did that music make you think of?" and providing suggestions for use of the materials, "Once you are done making your instrument you could use it to accompany a poem." will assist you in guiding children's learning. Participating within activities will help you to view the function of the center from the child's vantage point. As an involved observer, you can watch for ways to extend the children's learning and monitor the usefulness of the activities, the proper timing of introducing specific activities to the center, and determine when activities have lost their appeal. Care should be taken to ensure that the provided activities are open-ended and organized for independent learning to occur so that children at varying developmental stages can work with the materials. In that way, children can select activities according to their own needs and guide their own learning.

Creating Activities

When designing the learning center, the desired learning goals for your students should be identified and provide the framework for the center. In the following type of center the overall desired outcomes for children in early elementary grades include: a) to develop musical response through recorded music and props, b) to develop an understanding of the physical properties of making sound through experimentation and creation of musical instruments, c) to create musical compositions, d) to have opportunities to informally read printed music and read about music, e) to respond to music through creative writing, and f) to respond to music through drawing, painting, coloring, or other visual art forms. Once the outcomes have been determined, the next step is creating activities.

A variety of activities can be created to meet the desired outcomes (see Figure 1). To develop a musical response through recorded music and props, a tape player, streamers or scarves and several types of recorded music should be made available for children to respond freely to. Writing paper, drawing paper, pencils, markers, crayons, and paint provide additional creative opportunities for children to respond to music. Items such as large canning jars of which children can pour water into and play with a mallet or kitchen utensils is a good way to explore sound. To create instruments, prototypes such as maracas and drums can be provided for exploration with small coffee cans, film canisters, rice and beans for creating drums and shakers placed nearby. After creating their own instruments, children may want to use them to create their own musical compositions or to accompany poems or stories. Large musical staff paper for children to notate their compositions or cassettes and a tape-recorder can be provided for preservation of their musical product. For informal reading experience, songs that are notated and recorded, books of familiar songs, and books about music are good resources.

Figure 1
Learning Goals and Materials

Learning Goals and Materials

Develop musical response

  • recorded music and tape player
  • props streamers, scarves
  • variety of recorded music

Understand sound

  • large canning jars, water, mallets, kitchen utensils
  • maracas and drums
  • coffee cans, film canisters, rice, beans

Create musical compositions

  • created instruments
  • classroom instruments
  • variety of sound sources
  • large musical staff paper
  • writing utensils
  • cassettes and tape-recorder

Read music and read about music

  • collection of printed songs
  • notated and recorded songs
  • books of familiar songs
  • books about music

Respond through creative writing

  • recorded music for story or poem starters
  • writing paper, pens, and pencils

Respond through visual art forms

  • writing paper, drawing paper, pencils, markers, crayons, paint

Designing the Center

Many possibilities exist for the design of the learning center environment. Much of how the center is designed will depend on classroom space, accessibility and how many activities are to be included. One way to create the space is by sectioning off an area of the classroom from the rest of the room with office partitions, large pieces of cardboard, or a portable chalkboard. Also, boundaries for the center could be structured from classroom items such as a bookshelves, tables, chairs, and desks. Be sure to take time to think through traffic patterns, the flow of activities and how best to structure the space for children's full engagement with the materials. Once the size and boundaries of the environment have been determined materials may then be added.

Figure 2
Learning Center Blueprint

When considering the placement of materials for the activities, be sure that the children can manipulate them with ease and that materials should be easy to clean up and be stored.

Using the Center

Once the center has been planned, materials gathered, and is ready for use, take time to introduce the center to the children before they interact with the materials. Provide brief explanations of each area and demonstrate how to use equipment as well as how to clean up and store materials. Establish guidelines for using the center by asking the children what rules they think would be helpful for the smooth operation of the center. After the center has been in operation, evaluate the effectiveness of the activities. By being involved with the children as they participate in the center you will be able to evaluate which areas seem to attract children and which areas are rarely used. Spending time observing the children as they interact with the materials will also help to generate new activity ideas. Involve the children in evaluation of the center. Ask them for their opinions and their ideas for activities. They often know the tools they need for learning and have great ideas to share.

A music-based learning center has much to offer whether it be a springboard for creativity or a way to strengthen skills in other content areas. Whatever your learning goals, a music-based learning center just might be what you need in your classroom for your students to learn in a fresh and novel way.

Written by:

Suzanne L. Burton, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music Education
University of Delaware
Music Department

Dr. Suzanne Burton is assistant professor of music education at the University of Delaware where she teaches general and early childhood music methods courses, graduate courses in curriculum development and research and supervises student teachers. In addition, she teaches preservice elementary and early childhood teachers how to use music as a tool for learning in the classroom.

©Suzanne L. Burton, Ph.D. All rights reserved.