Fostering Creativity

6 Ways Music and Movement Help Children Learn and Grow

Rhythmic movement benefits children's development across many domains.

By Abby Connors from Shake, Rattle, and Roll | Posted 3/25/10 | Updated 5/17/24

Four-year-old DeAndre never just walks or runs into a room. He enters dancing, with a funky exuberance, twirling and stomping, his elbows and knees jerking and twisting in all directions. It always makes me smile to see his fun and totally unselfconscious dance moves.

They are not all as outgoing or boisterous as DeAndre, but all young children are natural movers. This makes sense because they are developing their growing muscles and learning about their bodies’ capabilities and possibilities. They run, they climb, they jump, they reach—they do just about everything except sit. So, why do we need to concern ourselves with providing physical activities for young children?

First of all, we need to be sure that young children are mastering specific developmental tasks. They should be able to kick, hop, tiptoe, walk along a line, balance on only one foot, and jump over very short barriers.

Secondly, our culture of TV, video games, cell phones, and other screens is encroaching on the physical play time of even very young children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that young children and adolescents do sixty minutes or more of physical activity every day, including aerobic activity, muscle strengthening (such as gymnastics), and bone strengthening (such as jump rope or running). Many young children do not achieve even close to this amount of time. A study by Kristen Copeland and colleagues found that children spend only 2 to 3 percent of their time doing vigorous physical activity during an eight-hour day in child care.

So, how do we get more physical activity into the young child’s day? We cannot spend all day playing on the playground, and besides, many school days are too cold, hot, or rainy for children to be outside for long. That is where music and movement activities come in!

Movement is a natural response to music. In fact, music and dance have been linked since the beginning of recorded history. Moving seems to connect us to music in a unique way, engaging our bodies and minds in making sense of the rhythms and melodies. But, why do we like to dance to music?

There is no one clear answer. Scientists have found that music activates the cerebellum, which is also involved in the coordination and timing of movement. This is a connection but not a causal relationship. Possibly, we want to move to music because the beat seems to demand a rhythmic response. When we listen to songs with a strong beat, it is almost like we cannot help dancing or at least tapping our feet! Young children, even babies, engage in rhythmic movement or dancing when exposed to rhythmic music. And rhythmic movement to music benefits young children’s development across many domains.

Health and physical development

Moving to music is an aerobic activity that helps children maintain a healthy weight, increases stamina, activates the immune system, strengthens the heart, and keeps muscles strong. Movements such as jumping and running in place also help bones stay strong and healthy.

We are all aware of the obesity epidemic in this country, which is affecting more and more children every year. Music and movement activities are an enjoyable way to get young children in the habit of physical activity and to help prevent weight problems.

In addition, movement activities give young children the opportunity to practice motor skills such as stretching their arms, bending and unbending their knees, swaying their hips, shrugging their shoulders, kicking, marching, tiptoeing, galloping, jumping, and hopping on one foot. Movement activities support all areas of physical coordination, posture, body awareness, and spatial awareness.

Social development

For thousands of years, moving to music in a group has been used to help people bond together. In religious and tribal rituals, in military drills, in any situation where it is desirable to form a cohesive group, people have moved to music. We have done this throughout human history for the simple reason that it works. Think of how you feel at a wedding or other social gathering when you dance to music in a large group. You feel happier, more comfortable, and more connected to the group, right? Dancing in a circle enhances this feeling of connectedness. Many traditional group dances, such as the hora, are performed in a circle, with dancers often holding hands and seeing all the other members of the group.

For young children, away from their homes, who need the comfort and security of belonging to a group, moving to music is a wonderful, playful, fun social-bonding experience. It is hard not to smile and laugh while dancing in a group, especially to a happy or humorous song. And, sharing smiles connects children to each other like nothing else.

Emergent literacy

As early-childhood expert Rae Pica states, “There are many links between literacy and movement. Movement and language are both forms of communication and selfexpression.” Music and movement activities promote many skills used in language and literacy. Moving to music often depends on interpreting auditory signals, such as stopping and freezing in place when the music stops. Many songs also support auditory memory. For instance, children may need to remember to pat their heads when they hear the word hat. Movement songs introduce new words to help build children’s vocabulary. Learning words such as soft, strong, sway, and wiggle is more meaningful to young children when they are both hearing the word and feeling the sense of the word.

Musical concepts

Music and movement activities use a multisensory approach to introduce musical concepts. Children hear the teacher talk about a concept, such as fast and slow clapping; they see their teacher demonstrate it; and they do fast and slow clapping themselves, feeling the difference in their bodies. The involvement of many senses strengthens and reinforces their learning.

Musical concepts introduced in these activities include soft and loud; getting softer and getting louder; fast and slow; getting faster and getting slower; legato and staccato (smooth and connected versus jerky, unconnected sounds and movements); timbre (sound quality, taught by exploring sounds made by different parts of the body); and keeping a steady beat, using hands, feet, or other body parts.


As discussed in the previous section, the beat in music is a division of time. In any given piece of music, all beats are equal in duration. Although it would not be developmentally appropriate to teach concepts such as equal parts and duration, it is very appropriate to introduce these ideas in ways children hear, see, and feel in their bodies.

In many of the activities in this section, we keep the steady beat by clapping, patting thighs, stomping, walking in place, running in place, tapping our heads and other parts of the body, and as many other ways as the children can think of. We also keep the beat by waving scarves and bouncing beanie animals.

Itsy Bitsy SpiderExposure to patterns is also central to many of these activities. Beats in music are arranged in patterns called measures, or bars. The activities in this section use beat patterns of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4; or 1-2-3, 1-2-3. These patterns are emphasized by playing a slightly stronger beat on 1 and by the words of the song (for example, IT-sy). Note that the parentheses indicate a beat with no words accompanying it. Therefore, to maintain the pattern, children should clap or tap on that beat. For instance, the beat pattern of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" would look like this:

Singing the words while clapping on all the numbered beats will make the beat pattern clearer.

Also, the children’s movements themselves are often arranged in patterns. We might tap our shoulders during the first three lines of a song and clap on the fourth line. This would be an AAAB pattern. Or, there might be a song with two alternating sections in which we walk in place during one section and run in place during the other section. This would be an ABAB pattern. Patterning is a basic concept in both music and math.

Emotional development

Oops—I almost forgot something really important about music and movement activities. They are fun! Dancing and moving around to music feels good. Feeling the beat, stomping your feet, shaking your hips, bouncing, and jumping while listening to music is one of the best stress relievers ever. When moving to music we feel happy, energized, and relaxed at the same time.

Young children need these kinds of activities every day. Rambunctious children need them to let off steam and release pent-up energy. Shy, quiet children need to let loose in a safe environment and to gain confidence. All young children need music and movement to let go of the stresses and worries of the day. With movement and music activities, they can be as playful and silly as they want and can express their individuality freely.

Which makes me think of DeAndre again. If just thinking about his joyful, energetic movement makes me smile, imagine how good it must make him feel to do it! The joy of moving to music makes every day happier, and when children are happy, they are ready to learn.

Next: Creating Music and Dance with Young Children

©2010 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.