Bringing music into the special needs family: At-home music activities for you and your children

by Metro Music Makers music therapist Kristen Van Dyke, LPMT, MT-BC

Music is one of the most primal things that we experience as humans. The heartbeat is a natural rhythm that is within each of us from the very beginning. Before children can communicate with words, they communicate with their voices in a symphony of “oooos” and “aaaaahhs.” A mother and father’s voice are a few of the first sounds that a child experiences in the womb. This is the case for all children.

It has been proven that early bonding experiences between parent and child are critical for language, cognitive and social development. Many times, parents and families that have a child with special needs feel rapidly overwhelmed with the amount of questions they have and the support they are going to need. It is easy to forget to spend some time together as a family. Also, depending on the child’s diagnosis, it can be a challenge for the parents to bond with their child in a traditional way. However, because many children are naturally drawn to music, and music is also something that parents can naturally relate to, it can be an easy vehicle for parents to use in bonding with their child.

Music activities are inherently interactive. Motor skills, movement, speech, call and response, and eye contact are just a few of the skills that music instinctively activates. Here are some ways that music can be used in a family to promote bonding between parent and child, in addition to providing opportunities for positive sibling interactions:

1. Pay attention to the songs that your child responds to. Many children love the songs found in their favorite movies or TV shows, but also children respond to the music that they hear in the house!

2. Designate specific music time in the house where you sing together as a family. This could be traditional children’s songs with motions (e.g., “Wheels on the Bus,” “Old McDonald,” etc.), movement to instrumental music, teaching your children songs that you remember from childhood, or learning a new song together.

3. Turn everyday routines into a song! Make up a little tune for when it is time to come sit at the table, brush your teeth, or even a little song to say goodnight.

4. Choose an illustrated book version of a song. This will reinforce  reading skills, add a visual component and involve music. If your child has a favorite book, but it is not a specific song, use instruments to represent certain characters or repetitive lines in the book.

No matter the diagnosis, age, gender or skill level, music can bring families together. Even families that do not have a child with special needs can benefit from the bonding experiences that music can bring. Many parents doubt their musical abilities, but know in the eyes of your child, you are amazing!

“Family is like music, some high notes, some low notes, but always a beautiful song.” (Jesse Joseph)

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