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The program consisted of two ten-week classes, one for two- and three-year-olds, and one for four- and five-year-olds. The parents also attended all the classes. The forty-five-minute sessions were divided into alternating segments of free play and guided group activities. Two researchers alternated their roles as participant/teacher and observer/note taker. Additional graduate music students also observed and took notes on the activities of the various children.
After the notes were transcribed and analyzed, three types of notable free play emerged: unfinished play, extinguishing play and enhancing play. In unfinished play, the free musical play of the children was interrupted or inhibited, and it was indicated by the children either bringing items back to the group when free play time ended, participating in the group activities from the periphery or ignoring the group activities. "Evidence of unfinished play suggests that the children needed play episodes beyond the time limits of the four main sections of each session of this program." (2) Two categories of interactions seemed to result in the extinguishing of play: physical proximity and corrections or suggestions. An adult's close, unexpected presence sometimes halted the child's play until the person left; and when an adult corrected, criticized or instructed the child on the musical activity, play sometimes was extinguished. Adult participation in a child-directed activity, with the adult valuing and encouraging the activity in a positive way, sometimes served to enhance the free play.
The researchers concluded that:
Evidence of unfinished musical play suggests that children desired play episodes beyond the contained time frames of/tree play with class sessions. We identified adult flexibility as necessary for children to finish their musical activity at their own pace. We recommend that educators occasionally abandon direct instruction, thereby removing emphasis on the musical product. We suggest that educators supplement specific skill acquisition and performance objectives with open-ended instruction. Open-ended instructional strategies using questions and suggestions may guide children to discover musical elements, thereby laying the groundwork for later skill acquisition.... We believe that, when provided with appropriate tools, a child's skill acquisition is more powerful because learning results from personal discovery rather than adult instruction of imposed traditional perceptions. (3)
Berger and Cooper then recommended that music teachers of preschool children should be "continually aligning and adjusting teaching actions to the process; consistently assessing current curriculum, classroom environment and student needs; and providing ample and appropriate opportunities for free musical play." (4)
This research may encourage us to ask ourselves some very basic and probing questions such as, "Why am I teaching very young children, and what are my goals for them? Are my goals appropriate for the preschool child, or am I just teaching a 'watered down' version of what I expect from my school-aged children? Am I process or product oriented, and how does that influence how I conduct my preschool classes? Does this research have any implications for my private instrumental lessons with very young children?" Many times the concept of free play can be confused with the negative image of "just messing around, wasting time" rather than being viewed as a valid and necessary learning approach for young children.
The teacher of young children needs not only to embrace this concept of the importance of free and experimental play, but also impart this information to the parents of the group. As this research indicated, much free play can be extinguished by well-meaning teachers and parents constantly intervening with corrections and advice. Perhaps it would be helpful for the teacher and parent to establish from the very beginning the belief that the outcomes of successful preschool classes often cannot be completely measured by tangible products or performances, and that greater benefits may be realized by the process of development, which will become more apparent as the child ages and matures.
(1.) Berger, A. A., and S. Cooper. "Musical Play: A Case Study of Preschool Children and Parents." Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(2003): 151-164.
(2.) Ibid., 157.
(3.) Ibid., 162-3.
(4.) Ibid., 163.
Rebecca Grooms Johnson is the director of keyboard pedagogy at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She is an experienced independent piano teacher and a past president of the Ohio MTA. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in piano pedagogy.