Rhymes, Songs, Stories and Fingerplays in Early Childhood

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Rhymes, Songs, Stories and Fingerplays in Early Childhood
Rhymes, Songs, Stories
and Fingerplays in Early
Childhood Classrooms
Dr. Beverly J. Irby
Texas State University System Regents’ Professor
Associate Dean for Graduate Programs
College of Education
Sam Houston State University
Dr. Rafael Lara-Alecio
Professor & Director
Bilingual Programs
Department of Educational Psychology
Texas A&M University
What Do We Know
About How Children
Basic Brain Information
• The brain research that we can currently
rely on comes from cognitive psychology
which has a well-established 50-year
connection to education as opposed to a
less than 20-year connection between
cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
The latter allows us to “see how mental
functions map onto the brain structures”
(Bruer, 1997, p. 4).
• There are three well-established findings
in developmental neurobiology:
• 1. Starting at infancy and continuing into
later childhood, there is a dramatic
increase in the number of synapses that
connect neurons in the brain.
Biology 101
• Neurons have specialized projections called
dendrites and axons. Dendrites bring
information to the cell body and axons take
information away from the cell body.
Information from one neuron flows to another
neuron across a synapse. The synapse is a
small gap separating neurons.
• The synapse
consists of:
• 1. a presynaptic
ending that contains
mitochondria and
other cell organelles,
2. a postsynaptic
ending that contains
receptor sites for
3. a synaptic cleft or
space between the
presynaptic and
• 2. There are experience-dependent
critical periods in the development of
sensory and motor systems.
• 3. In rats, at least-- complex, or enriched,
environments cause new synapses to
form (Bruer, 1997, p.4).
• Additionally, myelinazation of axons
which carry the signals occur at different
time periods (Markezich, n.d.)
So, what does this mean?
• The brain knows how to developmentally
scaffold itself. For example, in Broca's area,
the region in the brain for language production,
it has been determined that when this becomes
myelinated, children develop speech and
grammar. In Wernicke's area, the center of
language comprehension, myelination occurs a
good 6 months before Broca's area even starts.
This is very clever, since you need to be able to
understand language before you can produce it
(Zadina, 2006).
And what else does this mean?
• Starting in early infancy, there is a rapid
increase in the number of synapses or neural
connections in children’s brains. Up to age 10,
children’s brains contain more synapses than at
any other time their lives.
• Early childhood experiences fine-tune the
brain’s synaptic connections (Zadina, 2006).
Synaptic Pruning
• Childhood experiences reinforce and
maintain synapses that are repeatedly
used, but snip away at the unused
• Therefore, the time of high synaptic
density and experiential fine-tuning is a
critical period in the child’s cognitive
development – the time when the brain
can efficiently acquire and learn a range
of skills (Bruer, 1997, p. 4).
During the critical period:
• The classroom must be particularly rich and
stimulating as this is a critical window of
opportunity for brain development.
• This natural acquisition period– means that the
earlier we teach concepts the better (Hirsch,
1996, p.23); in particular, those concepts
should be taught in a meaningful and relevant
way (Lara-Alecio & Irby, 2001).
So, What does this mean?
• The implication is that if information is
presented to children in ways that fit each
child’s learning style, children are capable of
learning more than currently believed
(Education Commission of the States, 1996, p.
• Additionally, this urges us to begin the study of
languages, advanced mathematics, logic, and
music as early as possible– three or four
(Bruer, 1997).
• http://www.lindabook.com/afrogstalevideo
Rich, stimulating environments
Places for group learning like tables and desks grouped together, to stimulate social
skills and cooperative work groups
Link indoor and outdoor spaces so students
Safe places for students to be where threat is reduced, particularly in large urban
Variety of places that provide different lighting, and nooks and crannies
Change displays in the classroom regularly to provide a stimulating situations for
brain development.
Have multiple resources available. Provide educational, physical and a variety of
setting within the classroom so that learning activities can be integrated easily.
Computers areas, wet areas, experimental science areas should be in close
proximity to one another. Multiple functions of learning is our goal.
The teachable moment must be recognized and capitalized upon
Active and passive places: Students need quiet areas for reflection and retreat from
others to use intrapersonal intelligences.
Personal space: Students need a home base, a desk, a locker area. All this allows
learners to express their unique identity.
The community at large as an optimal learning environment: Teachers need to find
ways to fully use city space and natural space to use as a primary learning setting.
Technology, distance learning, community and business partnerships, all need to
be explored by educational institutions.
Enrichment: The brain can grow new connections at any age. Challenging,
complex experiences with appropriate feedback are best. Cognitive skills develop
better with music and motor skills. (Darcangelo, 2000)
Morning Circle Time and
• Morning Circle Time– Builds an atmosphere of trust and
intellectual safety.
• Some of the brain research has focused less on the
physical and biochemical structure of the brain and
more on the mind-- a complex mix of thoughts,
perceptions, feelings, and reasoning. Studies that
explore the effects of attitudes and emotions on
learning indicate that stress and constant fear, at any
age, can circumvent the brain's normal circuits. A
person's physical and emotional well-being are closely
linked to the ability to think and to learn effectively.
Emotionally stressful home or school environments are
counterproductive to students' attempts to learn.
• When the teacher speaks directly and
personally to the child, synapses fire. The
repetition of these kinds of positive early
interactions actually helps the brain
reinforce the existing connections and
make new ones (Honig, 1999). This
action on the part of the teacher prevents
synapse pruning.
Morning Circle Time
• In addition to the mental well being that the
circle time fosters, this time is usually
introduced with a song or a chant.
• It is best when the songs and activities are
relevant to the child’s life/culture.
• By exposing children to complex musical
sounds (Mozart, not hard rock) or the simple
children’s tunes, children will develop the same
areas of the brain required for math and spatial
reasoning (DeBord, 1997).
Letter Knowledge
• Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially
registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural
• Neural activity is diffuse, because the brain has not
learned the acoustic patterns that distinguish one
sound from another.
• As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain)
learns to differentiate among different sounds and
even among short sequences of sounds that
correspond to words or parts of words.
• Neural connections that reflect this learning process
are formed in the auditory (temporal) cortex of the left
hemisphere for most individuals.
• With further exposure, both the simple and complex
circuits (corresponding to simple sounds and
sequences of sounds) are activated at virtually the
same time and more easily (Genesee, 2000).
Neural Networks
• As connections are formed among adjacent neurons to
form circuits, connections also begin to form with
neurons in other regions of the brain that are
associated with visual, tactile, and even olfactory
information related to the sound of the word. These
connections give the sound of the word meaning.
• Some of the brain sites for these other neurons are far
from the neural circuits that correspond to the
component sounds of the words; they include sites in
other areas of the left hemisphere and even sites in the
right hemisphere. The whole complex of interconnected
neurons that are activated by the word is called a
neural network (Genesee, 2000).
Learning New
• The flow of neural activity is not unidirectional, from
simple to complex; it also goes from complex to
• For example, higher order neural circuits that are
activated by contextual information associated with
the word doggie can prime the lower order circuit
associated with the sound doggie with the result that
the word doggie can be retrieved with little direct
• Complex circuits can be activated at the same time
as simple circuits, because the brain is receiving
input from multiple external sources: auditory, visual,
spatial, motor.
• At the same time that the auditory circuit for the word
doggie is activated, the visual circuit associated with
the sight of a dog is also activated.
• Simultaneous activation of circuits in different areas
of the brain is called parallel processing.
• Students' vocabulary acquisition can be
enhanced when it is embedded in realworld complex contexts that are familiar
to them. Students need time and
experience ("practice") to consolidate new
skills and knowledge to become fluent
and articulated.
Movement and Music
• Music seems to involve the brain at
almost every level. Even allowing for
cultural differences in musical tastes,
researchers have found evidence of
music's remarkable power to affect neural
activity no matter where they look in the
brain, from primitive regions in all animals
to more recently evolved regions thought
to be distinctively human (Los Angeles
Times, 1998).
• Movement is the only thing that unites all brain
levels and integrates the right and left hemispheres
of young learners. The locomotion centers of the brain
are paired, facing one another along the top of the right
and left hemispheres, so that the center controlling the
left leg parallels the center controlling the right leg, and
so forth. For this reason, movement ties in both
hemispheres, allowing young children almost their only
opportunity to apply both sides of the brain to an effort
and attempt to pass information between the right and
left hemispheres. For this reason many young children
(and older kinesthetic learners) must move to learn.
They are able to pay attention and learn only if they are
free to wiggle around; sitting still is a strain.
• By a couple of months of age, babies can
process the emotional contours of language
(prosody), which means they tune in to the
emotional variations in your voice. (In fact,
toddlers can memorize nursery rhymes
because rhymes have prosody!) As the
preschool teacher raises his/her voice an
octave and draws out his/her vowels, the child's
brain responds by sending even more chemical
and electrical impulses across the synapses
(Honig, 1999).
Effective ESL Strategies
• The bilingual brain develops more densely, giving it an
advantage in various abilities and skills, according to
Andrea Mechelli of London's Wellcome Department of
Imaging Neuroscience.
• The brain has two types of tissue visible to the naked
eye, termed gray and white matter. Gray matter makes
up the bulk of nerve cells within the brain. Studies have
shown an association with gray matter density (or
volume and intellect), especially in areas of language,
memory, and attention.
• Brain imaging showed that bilingual speakers had
denser gray matter compared with monolingual
participants (Hitti, 2004).
Practice/Learning Centers
• Children learn best through interaction
with their environment and through active
participation, a learning center is an
optimal way to structure and extend the
learning of your students.
• Thematic integrative, cooperative,
workstations help develop the child’s
brain connectivity (Caine & Caine, 1991).
Reflect and Assess
• Caine and Caine (1991) recommend a learning
environment that includes three key factors: immersion
in complex experiences, low threat/high challenge, and
active processing.
• Complex experiences include the range of emotions
and levels of thinking that aid in the brain’s learning
• Environments that present high challenge in the
absence of threat promote the brain’s desire to search
for meaning and patterns, to make connections.
• Finally, active processing refers to metacognition, or
how you know what you know.
• This means providing time for reflection, verbalizing,
and more reflection.
Outside/Physical Activity
• General physical activity stimulates brain development
because it supplies the brain with glucose, its main
energy source. However, according to Gabbard at
Texas A&M University, [A]t this point it is still quite
unclear as to the specific types and amounts of
experience necessary to stimulate the formation of
particular neural connections (A cautionary note on
brain research, 2000).
• We do know that physical activity and movement
enhance fitness, foster growth and development, and
help teach children about their world.
Story Time
• Reading aloud, sharing music and
rhymes have an incredible impact on later
• Young children need real interactions in
order to learn.
• Using melodic voice tones to ensure
children's involvement and learning and
develops neural networks.
Things to Remember
• The brain is not rigid at birth, but "plastic" meaning that
it has the "ability to change its structure and chemistry
in response to the environment."
• The environment and genetics are equally
important. "The environment affects how genes work
and genes determine how the environment is
• The brain seeks connections. There are critical
development periods in which the brain is "wired" for
learning a particular skill (not a new idea, but now
supported by current brain research).
• The brain is superactive between ages 4 and 10, called
the "wonder years of learning." Brain research supports
early education efforts and parental education efforts.
Caine and Caine’s 12 Principles
• The brain is a parallel processor in which thoughts, experiences,
and emotions operate simultaneously and interact with other
modes of information.
• Learning engages the entire physiology. Physical health, sleep,
nutrition, moods, and fatigue, all affect the brain’s memory.
• The search for meaning is innate. The brain needs and
automatically registers the familiar while simultaneously searching
for and responding to additional stimuli.
• The search for meaning occurs through patterning, organizing and
categorizing information in meaningful and relevant ways.
• Emotions are critical to patterning. Emotion cannot be separated
from cognition. Emotion motivates us to learn, to create.
12 Principles cont.
• Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates wholes and
• Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral
perception. Learning happens all the time, everywhere.
• Learning involves conscious and unconscious
processes. Learners become their experience and remember what
they experience not just what they are told. Meaning is not always
available on the surface. It often happens intuitively.
• The brain uses at least two kinds of memory: spatial memory and
rote memory.
• The brain understands and remembers but when facts and skills
are embedded in natural spatial memory.
• Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.
• Each brain is unique with individual learning styles and ways of
• “A cautionary note on brain research.” (Fall, 2000).
Northwest Education Magazine. Retrieved on
October 1, 2005 from
• Bruer, J.T. (1997). Education and the brain: A bridge
too far. Educational Researcher, 26 (8), 4-16.
• Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (1991). Making connections:
Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park: Addison
• D'Arcangelo, M. (2000). How does the brain
develop? A conversation with Steven Peterson.
Educational Leadership, 58(3), 68-71.
• DeBord, K. (1997). Brain development. [Extension
Publication ]. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service. (Retrieved on
October 2, 2005 from
• Genesee, F. (2000). Brain research: Implications for second
language learning. ERIC Digest. ED447727 .
• Hirsch, E.D. (1996). The schools we need and why we don’t have
them. New York: Doubleday.
• Hitti, A. (2004). Being bilingual boosts brain power. WebMD
Medical News. (Retrieved on October 5, 2005 from
Honig, A.S. (1999). Scholastic Parent and Child.
Los Angeles Times (November 11, 1998). Brain comes alive to sound of
Zadina, J. (February, 2006). Our plastic brains can be rewired. Paper
presented at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX.
Lara-Alecio, R, Bass, J., & Irby, B. J. (2001). Ethnoscience: Considering Mayan
culture and astronomy. The Science Teacher, 68(3), 48-51.
Markezich, A. (n.d.) Learning windows and the child’s brain. Superkids.
(Retrieved on October 1, 2005 from
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