Music & Life

One of the topics we’ve been looking at in Music & Life is early music learning and how you can introduce music into a child’s life in a fun and educational way.Play On Education Music School

Today we’re speaking with Joanne van de Heuvel-Berkers, founder of the Play On Education Music School, a Worcestershire, UK-based music school which specialises in early years music education and introducing elements of fun and play to learning music.

We asked Joanne to share some of her insights into teaching music at an early age, and tell us more about the approach she has chosen in her school.

Establishing a new music school is a serious undertaking – what inspired you to start Play On Education?

The Play On Education Music School was developed as a response to the lack of good quality early years music education in the local area. I have always had a strong interest in music education for the very young and so alongside my training as a teacher and Music Coordinator in schools, I have also sought out further, more specialised courses to learn more about this area of music education and child development.

It is my aim for Play On Education to inspire parents to share the joy of music with their children, either by using ideas and information from the blog and Facebook page, by attending a class, or a combination of both.

Following the birth of my son I searched for a class based on Kodály principles which would develop early musicianship skills in a fun, musical and child-centred way. I found that despite the fact that there were many groups offering entertaining classes to children, there was a lack of classes which focus on musicianship skills that could later be developed and transferred onto an instrument.

It made sense to expand the piano teaching business I’d been building over the years to include early years Music Kindergarten classes, with baby, toddler, preschool and school age music classes which introduce children to musical activity in a fun and age-specific way. It is my aim for Play On Education to inspire parents to share the joy of music with their children, either by using ideas and information from the blog and Facebook page, by attending a class, or a combination of both.

Could you tell us a bit more about your Music Kindergarten programme and how it differs from traditional (classical) music education?

The Play On Education Music Kindergarten jump starts a child’s development with age-appropriate music classes for babies and children from birth to 7 years. Children learn music skills in a fun way, using songs and activities to introduce new musical concepts such as high and low, fast and slow, long and short, and loud and quiet. Lessons are carefully planned to be multi-sensory and are designed to support all areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage which is used in nurseries and schools throughout England.

Singing is at the heart of the Play On Education Kindergarten curriculum. Based on the principles of Zoltan Kodály, traditional folk songs, as well as nursery songs, stories and music are used in order to develop the imagination and enable each child to fulfill their musical potential.

Play On Education Video Channel

Play On Education Video Channel

To add to the fun, a range of simple percussion instruments and props are also used, including tuned and untuned percussion, scarves, pictures, soft toys, balls and rhythm cards. Our activities range widely: we include singing, rhythm games, circle games, playing percussion instruments, listening, performing, composing, improvising and movement. The best part is that the children have so much fun that they don’t even realise they are learning!

The idea of this programme is that the children are making and reacting to music in a manner that is more appropriate for their age than a formal instrumental lesson. It is not our intention to replace instrumental lessons with the Kindergarten programme, but to provide a solid musical foundation from which children can benefit from when they progress onto an instrument.

How has the “Kodály approach” influenced your own teaching?

The Kodály approach to music education is very effective with young children as it is child-centred and delivered through the use of song. By using the voice as a musical instrument a child can learn to express him/herself musically without the technical difficulties of an instrument. When singing unaccompanied, children can begin to develop skills such as intonation, musical memory and inner hearing – all skills that will be needed when learning to play a musical instrument.

Traditional folk songs, as well as nursery songs, stories and music are used in order to develop the imagination and enable each child to fulfill their musical potential.

The idea is that children learn unconsciously at first, through the use of singing games and traditional songs. Later as the child progresses the learning becomes semi-conscious and then progresses to being made conscious. This progression makes the learning process more natural. I have based my own programme on Kodály principles, placing singing at the heart of the curriculum. By using singing games and folksong in the Play On Education Music Kindergarten, children learn musical skills firstly unconsciously, then gradually progress to conscious learning.

Alongside the Music Kindergarten programme, you also provide piano tuition and use the ABRSM exam system – a quite traditional syllabus. Are lessons at this stage still influenced by the play-based approach you use with younger children? Are fun and play still relevant to older musicians?

Fun and play are most definitely still relevant to older musicians as they progress from the Music Kindergarten and onto instrumental tuition. My instrumental lessons still include musical games and activities to break down concepts into manageable blocks. I cater for each individual child’s needs, but examples of some play based activities that I include are: clapping games and activities, singing games and activities, memory games based on rhythm and pitch patterns, singing and playing in rounds, pitching notes on the piano, and creating or playing an ostinato to accompany a musical extract.

By including fun musicianship activities the aim is to develop the musician as a whole, and to avoid a situation where pupils do not develop musical sensitivity or understanding.

One concern often raised by parents who haven’t been musically trained is “can non-musical parents raise a musical child?” What would you say to a ‘non-musical’ parent about their child’s musical potential?

I believe that all children are born with a level of musical potential. The best way that parents can develop that potential is to:

  • Give children the opportunity to hear high quality music
  • Show how enjoyable singing can be by singing joyfully to their children
  • Support children in their development of listening skills

This third point can be achieved by singing and reading to the child, and it is also helpful to turn off background noise such as a television – otherwise children can become used to filtering out background noise and can start to ‘turn off their listening ears’!

What’s coming up for the Play On Education school over the next year?

2011 looks to be an exciting year for Play On Education. I am looking forward to providing the opportunity for more families to attend quality early years musicianship classes by opening more classes in the Worcestershire area.

I would also like Play On Education to reach all families, regardless of location, so I am planning to continue to add more useful articles regarding music education and parenting on the Play On Education blog, our Facebook page and via our newsletter.

Whether it’s a Worcestershire-based parent who can take full advantage of the school’s classes, or someone across the world learning through the online resources at, this innovative new music school is sure to be a real help for anybody trying to introduce music into a child’s life in a fun and constructive way. We wish Joanne every success with the school in 2011!

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