“Orange is kind of a weird word,” Will Paradis says. “It sounds like it would be one syllable, but it’s two.”
“You go or-ange, like that,” he continues with a clear, deliberate tone. At his feet, Early Childhood Education students at Pascual LeDoux Academy on Denver’s southwest side listen intently, with hand drums at the ready.
“So two syllables, and two rests. We’re going to go or-ange rest rest,” Will instructs them.
With that, Will picks up a drum resting on his lap and leads the class through the exercise: a drum beat for each spoken syllable, and no drum beats for each rest. The brightly-decorated room comes alive.
“Or-ange rest rest,” Will beats and announces.
“Or-ange rest rest,” the class says and beats and rests along with him.
“Excellent!” Will says.
It’s clear from even this brief glimpse of a Little Swallows Early Childhood Education class that this is a music lesson, and so much more.
At Swallow Hill Music, we believe quality early childhood music education is key to setting children up for success in kindergarten and beyond.
Little Swallows is a powerful program the supports preschool students’ innate desire to sing, dance and learn through music. Lesson Plans are created to meet the music standards for preschool as determined by the Colorado Department of Education including Creation, Expression, Theory and Aesthetic Valuation.
Will is a longtime music instructor who started teaching Little Swallows classes in September 2018 as part of Swallow Hill’s Community Outreach Programs at Pascual LeDoux. He now teaches 10 Little Swallows Classes a week, splitting them between Pascual LeDoux and Mile High Early Learning.
Will calls the syllable exercise “Fruit Salad,” and admits on paper it might look a little silly. By breaking down the syllables in the names of the fruits, though, he helps the students develop their counting skills. The students apply these skills to a rhythmic pattern, which allows them to know when to beat their drums, and when to rest.
In learning whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, the students put to use the basic building blocks for rhythm patterns that will help in kindergarten math and reading.
“It is hard to talk about music without talking about basic math,” Will says. In teaching the class of four and five year old students, he has witnessed first hand how the students grasp that math is inherent to making music.
It goes way beyond math, though. Will says the music lessons also bring the students out of their shells. He finds them more talkative and expressive each time he comes for a class. He also sees them displaying better listening and communication skills.
Thinking about this for a moment, Will talks about the importance of music education.
“It is a totally interdisciplinary subject. You are doing way more than just making noise when you play music,” he says. “It’s helping us grow as mathematicians. It’s helping us learn how to express ourselves through language. We’re learning about different cultures. We’re learning how to appreciate the arts. There’s science involved when you get into more abstract music theory. It’s covering everything in a way that is totally accessible to a child because music is everywhere in their lives.”
Then, reeling himself in, he says with a little chuckle, “Fun is critical in a music lesson. If we’re not having fun in a music class I believe it’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
Watching his students, it’s hard to imagine any of them would disagree with this last point. Throughout the weekly, half hour long class Will keeps his students on their toes – literally.
The class moves at a brisk pace, beginning with a welcome song where each student gets to announce themselves to the rest of the class, and shine. From there it’s a mix of singing, dancing, listening, drumming, and play acting.
This all comes together with a song called “Popcorn Kernels.”
In this song, Will hands out a multicolored collection of scarves that act as the popcorn kernels. The children follow along with Will as he sings “Popcorn kernels, popcorn kernels, in the pot, in the pot.” With this he crams his scarf tightly into his hands. “Shake them, shake them, shake them,” he sings as everyone shakes their hands. “Then they POP! Then they POP!” he sings as the scarves go flying into the air with the children jumping and laughing with delight. This song gets repeated several times.
As with “Fruit Salad,” there is a lot more going on here than just a fun song. Here the students are listening, following along, and then joyfully exploding in unison at the appropriate time.
This multi-sensory activity engages many senses – sight, sound, touch – and creates and strengthens neural connections in the brain.
Though he is the focal point of the lessons, Will gives all of the credit for a successful class to the teachers. The class has more than a dozen kids and they display a mix of introverted and extroverted, happy and sad, and engaged and not-so-engaged. The teachers participate in the songs, but they also work one on one with the students to keep everyone moving forward together.
The teachers, in turn, credit Will and the Little Swallows classes for helping the children learn and grow socially and academically.
“I think music education is so essential for this age group since it connects with their young minds so well and is one of the strongest tools to strengthen cognitive flexibility,” Pascual LeDoux teacher Dana Berge says.
“I think this music program has worked wonders as far as developing social emotional skills like confidence, collaboration, listening, and participating/following directions,” she adds. Dana feels the curriculum – the repetition of the songs and activities – helps the students progress academically and socially.
“I have also noticed progression in students with special needs,” Dana says. While acknowledging her classroom represents a diverse group of children, each with their own needs, she and her fellow teachers need to keep things cohesive.
“Through music class, many of these students feel more successful and like they have another way to connect with their teachers and peers especially when they are nonverbal.”
To demonstrate this, Dana shares a story about a student with special needs who she calls “S.”
“S was completely non verbal when we had him in a three year old classroom last year,” she says. “He progressed greatly but still used very little language coming into the four year old classroom this year.”
Dana noticed that S was connecting in the Little Swallows classes, however.
“He was always so eager to start music class. He would be waiting at the door hopping up and down waiting to open the door for Mr. Will and us.”
This was leading, steadily and surely, to a breakthrough.
“S loved the hello song and would always participate to the degree that he could. After a few weeks he was singing whole parts of the songs with us! The first time I have ever heard him speak/sing a full sentence.”