Here's How a Playground Can Be an Investment in Early Music Education

Not all children enjoy physical activities. To expose our youngest students to the joys of musical expression, we now include outdoor instruments in our playground experience. When it came to deciding which instruments to choose, I prioritized installations that could get the most students involved and were nature-themed, adding a fresh new look to our school, located in the heart of Saint Louis.

Here at Lift for Life Academy, many of our students may not be exposed to musical instruments at home. Giving them a chance to play music at school benefits their development musically, intellectually and socially. Being exposed to music from a young age has been proven to encourage teamwork, improve memory, self-confidence and empathy, along with supporting the development of communication skills and intellectual curiosity. The basics of playing musical instruments also help to build dexterity and motor skills.

It was clear that outdoor musical instruments could have the power to transform the culture of any playground and in turn, the wider school.

I wanted the instrument installations to serve as a reinvestment in exposing our younger students to music, while adding new energy to the playground. I wanted colorful, life-sized, outdoor musical instruments that would be robust enough to stand the year-round climate and our students’ enthusiastic use. Furthermore, I wanted the instruments to be inclusive so that any student, regardless of their physical or musical skills, would be rewarded with lovely sounds to encourage their love of music. 

Whether each child is musical or not, the outdoor musical instruments we selected are not intimidating. Many of them use a pentatonic scale. This means that, regardless of how many people are playing any number of instruments, they always produce a lovely harmonized musical sound. Being easy to play prevents minimal musical understanding between the students getting in the way of learning to enjoy music. 

The Percussion Play instruments we chose are geared towards everyone, regardless of height or mobility. Our outdoor area allows the students to have a positive experience of learning how musical instruments work, which builds their musical confidence. 

We now have a totally engaging, creative outdoor space with cavatina xylophones, rainbow chimes, rainbow bongos and harmony bellflowers. The diverse range of outdoor musical instruments works to bring both harmony and accessibility to the outdoors. 

These outdoor instruments help expose students to music at a young age. Our students have been able to interact with each other through the instruments, playing them in unison to form a greater sound. This experience not only heightens their understanding of sound, but also shows how music can bring them all together. Playing these outdoor instruments deepens the sense of community within the academy.

Teachers are already seeing how this new experience is building enthusiasm and a greater sense of community among the students. Words of appreciation and playful banter on whose turn it is to first play with an instrument have grown to be a common occurrence on the playground. One teacher said, “A first-grader ran full speed and hugged me to say thanks and, ‘This is so awesome!’”

I have also been working with our music teacher to better incorporate these instruments into the curriculum. We also plan on including the instruments in future orchestral performances, allowing our 3rd-12th graders to explore percussive performance. 

The foundation of our program is learning through discovery, play and exploration. Our program aspires to help create musicians who can become creative and professional contributors to music. 

Our students are often underserved and have often not been afforded the same musical experiences as others. These instruments allow them to not only create music but to create beautiful music, which may lead them to be musicians in the future. Our outdoor musical instruments are helping our students create their own voice and space of creativity; they are continuing to push our students to achieve higher goals.

Our biggest problem now is bringing in the kids from recess! For the children who have long needed to stay home given the pandemic, the new additions have been a big hit.

Photos courtesy of the author.
Marshall Cohen
Marshall Cohen is the co-founder and executive director of Lift for Life Academy, an innovative, child-focused charter school in St. Louis, Missouri.

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