Music for All Ages: A Buyer's Guide to Classroom and Kids' Instruments
There are countless benefits to giving children their first taste of music at a young age. Some of these are obvious, such as the development of manual dexterity through handling of instruments, and using classroom instruments to lay the foundation for potential music hobbies or careers later in life. Others aren't quite so plain at first glance but are still very important to think about: for instance, early experience in music can improve confidence, memory and creativity. And since learning is usually done in group settings, young kids can learn social skills like cooperation, self-discipline and patience.
With all of this enrichment to offer, not to mention plain and simple fun, it's safe to say that music is an integral part of early childhood education. Keeping music programs alive doesn't have to be costly or cumbersome. In this guide, we'll look at affordable and fun instruments for kids to use in the classroom.
Before getting into specific instruments, it's worth taking a moment to consider some universal factors that apply to classroom and kids' instruments across the board. We can refer to these as "kid-friendly qualities" - the characteristics that you should be looking for no matter which individual instruments you're adding to your program.
An instrument for early childhood use needs to be within the kids' ability to use and understand, and shouldn't require any advanced playing techniques. Percussion instruments tend to suit this quality especially well, which is one reason why they're extremely popular in the classroom. As a bonus, simplicity and affordability tend to go hand-in-hand since the more basic an instrument is, the less expensive it is to make.
Make sure that the options you consider are legitimate instruments made for children and not simply toys. Well-made kids' instruments are durable enough to stand the test of time, even when subjected to heavy use from class after class of children over the years. The last thing you want is for an instrument to fall apart in a student's hands!
Budding musicians they may be, but above all else, kids are kids! They're going to touch, feel and play - and they're perfectly likely to touch the instruments and then put their fingers in their mouths (or worse yet, put the instruments themselves in there!). This makes non-toxic surfaces a priority, particularly in instruments for very young children. Your classroom instruments should also be small and lightweight enough for kids to use with minimal effort.
For maximum effectiveness, match the design of the instrument to the age of the kids who will be using it. Very young children are generally going to be experimenting with sound in an abstract fashion, while their slightly older counterparts will become interested in genuinely making music. Start your youngest students out on basic instruments like simple percussion, and consider choosing bright colors and fun shapes. When students are old enough to properly care for instruments and handle some technical theory, they're ready to start more complex instruments like recorders.
This is one of the most versatile instrument families available to educators, offering instruments suitable for varying ages and skill levels from the youngest kids right up through the higher primary-school years. Classroom percussion instruments are the go-to choices for introducing young students to the fundamentals of rhythm and beat, which are some of the most crucial lessons on the subject of music that they'll learn in their entire lives.
Shakers, Rattles and Castanets
These handheld instruments are ideal for teaching rhythmic skills, giving toddlers an accessible way to grasp (literally!) the concept of musical time. You can have kids play one-at-a-time or together in a group, to the beat of their own rhythm or following along with recorded music. Best of all, instruments in this category are affordable even on the tightest program budgets.
Castanets are the simplest of the designs, made of paired wooden shells that click together with simple hand motions. Shakers and rattles, on the other hand, are hollow vessels filled with sand, pebbles or seeds - their sound depends on the fill material as well as the composition and shape of the shell. You can even make your own shakers using readily-accessible supplies like plastic bottles and rice. What a cool activity it would be to have kids make their own personal shakers and then play them!
A fun set of shakers is Nino's Botany Shaker Fruit Assortment, which features colorful fruit shapes that are as exciting to look at as they are to play.
Triangles and Wood Blocks
Everybody recognizes the classic triangle. What most people don't realize is that this angled metal bar has hidden complexity within its deceptively simple form. There are many different ways to strike a triangle, and no two locations sound exactly the same when struck - which means the potential sounds it can make are virtually limitless, and allow for all kinds of experimentation.
Wood blocks are every bit as well-known as the triangle, and they offer a similarly big array of different sound options. In the case of wood blocks, those differing sounds come from varying sizes, shapes and wood types rather than positions and techniques. They're not only fun to play; they're fantastic for showing kids how differences in construction can create different-sounding instruments.
A good bit more advanced than basic percussion instruments, djembes offer a great deal of opportunity for students once they've got their foundations established. The djembe is a traditional West African drum with a goblet-shaped body and often using a system of webbed ropes to tension the skin on top. Like the triangle, the djembe can create a wide variety of different tones depending on where and how it's struck.
When shopping for djembes, look for models that aren't too big for kids to manage. An ideal djembe for children will have a synthetic head, which allows the drum to withstand humidity and temperature changes while making it possible for the design to be tuning-free. A low-maintenance instrument like this will stand up to lots of classroom drum circles, so you can get years of reliable use out of it.
The Remo Kids' Percussion Rain Forest Djembe is a good case study for what to look for in one of these drums: synthetic head, no tuning required, affordable, well-built and boasting a colorful design that kids are sure to love.
Few of the instruments mentioned in this guide could be called as classic as the tambourine. It's been teaching kids the fundamentals of rhythm for decades, and it's sure to be around for at least as many years in the future. For kids, keep the size compact: 10" at the most. And don't feel limited to only rhythm instruction - by shaking it to produce a jingling sound, tambourines can be a good accent or "just for fun" instrument as well.
The smallest tambourines have a single row of jingles (or "zils"), but if you want a brighter and stronger sound, consider a double-row instrument such as the Nino Double-Row Tambourine.
When we think cymbals, most of us think of the drum sets found onstage, with their crashes, rides and hi-hats. But when it comes to classroom and kids' instruments, there's a whole other class of cymbal out there. Much smaller, lighter and delightfully unsophisticated, these cymbals for tots are exciting ways for kids to gain an introduction to the concepts of percussion ensembles, jazz bands, marching bands and other places where cymbals are commonly found.
A great set of kids' cymbals would be the 5" diameter Hohner Brass Cymbals. These can be played by crashing them against one another, or by tapping them with one of the percussion mallets included in the box.
Where percussion instruments leave off, melodic classroom instruments take over. The recorder and the ukulele are two examples of popular instruments in this category. We've also included melodic percussion here - instruments like the steel drums, bells and glockenspiel are technically classified as percussion instruments, but with their ranges and capabilities, they fit comfortably under the umbrella of melodic instruments for educational purposes.
This member of the flute family is practically a symbol for school music programs as a whole, so it's not a stretch to call it the defining melodic instrument of the classroom. It's even a nostalgic instrument for adults, since many of us still have warm memories of learning pentatonic scales with simple melodies played on the recorder during our own childhoods.
Tonal accuracy is important for recorders, so it's important to look for good quality when choosing an instrument for your class or child. We recommend 3-piece recorders since they're easy to disassemble for cleaning. A well-thought-out recorder outfit will include a cleaning rod and a carrying case to assist in caring for the instrument. Resist the temptation to go straight for the lowest price - instead, search for a recorder that offers good value by including these features and accessories at a reasonable cost.
Aulos is one of the best-known recorder makers, and their A709Bw Alto Classroom Recorder is well-designed and well-accessorized - perfect for young musicians.
As members of the melodic percussion family, steel drums make a fantastic introduction to percussion concepts as well as notation. Also known as steelpans, they have a very distinctive sound that could be described as "tropical" - that's probably why Disney songwriters chose them for providing the rhythm in "Under the Sea".
One of the strengths of the steel drum is that, with a properly-marked instrument, it can be played even before kids have learned to read music. This makes it an excellent instrument for teaching about written music notation, since you can have the notes written out as letters alongside the staff, allowing children to form visual associations between the two as they read and play.
A recommended steel drum is Panyard's Jumbie Jam, which comes with a collapsible stand, songbook and play-along CD to provide a well-rounded learning opportunity.
Like steel drums, bells (or glockenspiels, as they are sometimes called) are considered melodic percussion instruments. Their design couldn't be any simpler: each "bell" is a tuned metal plate, and they're laid out in a piano-like configuration. Striking one of these plates with a mallet produces a tone in the corresponding note. This type of bell is not to be confused with handheld bells like cowbells or handbells - although those instruments certainly are equally well-suited to classrooms.
Some variations on melodic bells are made with hollow cylinders or curved plates instead of flat ones. Regardless of which style you choose to add to your collection of classroom and kids' instruments, there are a couple of things to look for: namely, a carrying case (some models are built right into a case), at least one included mallet and a note chart to help children make sense of the bells' layout.
One set of bells that offers all of these things is the Lyons 25-Note (G-G) Bell Set, which is well-crafted and comes mounted in a sturdy carrying case to protect it during transit and storage.