Grant holder
Dr Sacha Powell, Dr Kathy Goouch, Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities, Canterbury Christ Church University
Project status

Research exploring the nature and purposes of singing with babies (birth to two years), according to the practitioners who care for them in nursery settings.

Project summary

The context, aims, methods and key findings and conclusions from a research project that was funded by The Froebel Trust in 2013 and 2014. The project, ‘Mother Songs in Daycare for Babies’, drew on the philosophical and pedagogical writings of the 19th century German educator, Friedrich Froebel.

The project explored the nature and purposes of singing with babies (birth to two years), according to the practitioners who care for them in nursery settings. 29 ‘baby room’ practitioners from private day nurseries in southeast England were involved in a series of research-informed professional development sessions over the course of two academic years. Data consisted of field notes documented during development session discussions; filmed practice in baby rooms and subsequent, recorded interviews and group discussions, aided by video recall; an online survey designed to audit singing repertoires and practices; and documentation in project folders that the practitioners created.

The Context

In England, an estimated 500,000 babies and toddlers (under two years) are registered in formal childcare settings (Powell and Goouch 2012). These ‘service providers’ are regulated and inspected and the quality of their Early Years provision is judged by the national education inspectorate, Ofsted. It is not clear what constitutes good quality in provision for babies and toddlers, but internationally, academic enquiries and reviews of research suggest that babies should experience attentive, responsive care from knowledgeable adults in safe and thoughtfully arranged environments (see for example David et al 2003, Goldschmied and Jackson 2003, Mathers et al 2014; Dalli et al 2011).

With government funding for free early education for children aged two years and older, coupled with an indication that more highly qualified staff seem more frequently to work with the older children than the babies (Hadfield et al 2012) a clear discrepancy emerges. The myriad explanations for this apparent, two-tier system incorporate political, economic and sociocultural factors (Vincent et al 2007). Less research focused on Early Years pedagogies for children under two than those aged 2 to 7 years has been published in England and little is known about the principles and practices that are employed in the education and care of infants and toddlers in formal day care settings. This may help to explain why opportunities to engage in relevant professional development and participatory research enquiries appear to be rare for those employed to care for the babies (Goouch and Powell 2013).

Singing as a pedagogical tool

The project sought to explore the possibilities that singing may offer for extending the pedagogical repertoires and philosophical reservoirs from which practitioners might draw in their ‘baby room’ work. Practitioners were supported to explore their own beliefs, question practices and consider theories about babies’ care and their role in relation to this and to consider the expression (and management) of emotion through these musical encounters, particularly within lullabies. Friedrich Froebel’s influence on practice appears to be timeless as singing continues to be promoted as an educational activity for the nursery, and songs and finger rhymes are tools to enhance children’s learning experiences.

Although we found that singing was predominantly employed as a functional tool – to distract, calm, soothe, corral or manage babies and young children, the purposes of singing ranged over many educational intentions including language development and social participation. However, these activities occur within a particular curricular framework, infused with contemporary socio-political ideology and the motives that practitioners expressed for singing with babies did not necessarily resonate with Froebel’s (19th century) philosophy about babies and their learning in the company of adults. While Froebel’s legacy places singing firmly within the repertoire of Early Years practices, the underlying rationale may be distinctly different in 21st century England.

Exploring Song and Singing

Singing is a universal human activity that crosses but is also shaped by cultures (Potter and Sorrell 2014). Examining the exaggerated musicality in so-called ‘motherese’, Malloch (1999) developed the concept of ‘communicative musicality’, later elaborating this with Colwyn Trevarthen to suggest that ‘musical narratives allow adult and infant…to share a sense of sympathy and situated meaning in a shared sense of passing time’ (Malloch and Trevarthen 2008: 4). Their concept, which has been criticised (Black 2010) derives from Stern’s (1985) belief that babies and their intimate carers can attune to and share one another’s internal, emotional states, focused attention and sense of self (or subjectivity), thereby becoming ‘intersubjective’. This contemporary perspective resonates with Froebel’s belief that babies were born with innate capabilities, which nurturing relationships could help to unfold; and that singing was a conduit for emotional exchange (Elkind 2015; Spratt 2012).

Our project invited practitioners to engage critically with these ideas, to explore their own beliefs about singing and to reflect on its place, features, functions and effects in the settings where they worked with babies and toddlers.

Froebel Revealed, Revered, Reframed

Friedrich Froebel’s philosophy for the care and education of children through play emphasised the importance and value of singing and its beneficial effects for babies and their carers. He believed that anyone who worked with young children needed to be specially trained in children’s songs and to have a liking and capacity for singing; and that babies and young children needed to sing and to be sung to by their mothers and other carers. None of the project participants had heard of Friedrich Froebel when our project sessions began. We introduced some of his ideas to the groups to raise awareness of Froebel’s immense and enduring contribution to early childhood practice and to involve the groups in a critical exploration of their own and others’ philosophies and theories. We focused on singing as a pedagogical tool, making clear that deconstruction of the practice of singing was a vehicle for investigating underlying or associated beliefs and assumptions (especially about the communication of affect) and highlighting Froebel’s principled approach to the promotion of singing within a pedagogy for the Early Years. We also shared recent research evidence and theoretical propositions concerning babies and ‘infant directed singing’ (Trehub et al 1993).

Babysong Revisited 2022

British Journal of Music Education, Vol.39(3), p.273-285

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Research documents

Principled Encounters Froebels Legacy Summary PDF Feb 2016