For American Amy Nanavati, the mother of 1-year-old Elizabeth, moving to Tokyo from New York earlier this year felt overwhelming. And then she discovered Kindermusik.
“It’s neat to see how Elizabeth has developed since we started Kindermusik,” said Nanavati. “Before she just laughed and danced, but now she understands it. I think when you arrive [in Japan] everything is so new. For me, having a program I could involve my daughter in made me feel I could bring back structure into my life a little bit. I felt I had accomplished something.”
Kindermusik is an early childhood music-and-movement program that was created by a team of childhood educators in Greensboro, N.C. The emphasis is on introducing children to a wide spectrum of music, using classical and folk instruments from different cultures and different periods of history.
“Kindermusik’s first goal is to encourage musical children rather than create child musicians,” said Karla Watauchi, one of the first people to be licensed to teach Kindermusik in Japan. “The children are learning to use their voices in many expressive ways. Children are also great mimics, and from the very start, they are naturally curious about sounds and instruments.”
Watauchi will sing high and low, slow and fast. Sometimes she pauses and lets the children take in the silence. Children love to mimic Watauchi, whose ease with young children comes both from being the mother of a 5-year-old boy, Kaiya, and from working in early childhood education in Tokyo for a decade.
Tokyo Union Church’s preschool sent Watauchi to a Kindermusik seminar in the United States where she got her license in the summer of 1999. After teaching Kindermusik in the mornings and a regular class in the afternoons at Tokyo Union Church for one year, she made the very easy decision to concentrate just on Kindermusik.
Kindermusik activities are designed in four stages, for children up to the age of 7. CDs, instruments and reading materials are geared to each age group, and they become part of the starter-kit that parents and children take home.
For Sarah Jane Davis, mother of four children aged from 5 months to 5 years, the lively range of compact discs that Kindermusik provides became a big hit at home. “It’s something we do together,” said Davis. “For us, Kindermusik is an inroad into music at home. I’m sort of learning with them.”
The youngest learners — infants under 18 months old — are in the Village class. “The Village class opens each week with mothers singing to their babies while they lie on blankets.” Watauchi said. “We hold the babies for rocking, circle dances, bouncing, swooping, and this intentional touch is an important part of the program.”
The classes use music to develop togetherness and at the same time foster independence. Our Time classes (18 months to 3 years) allow children to experience the activities from the safety of a mother’s lap or with friends in a circle.
“Toddlers at this age are excited yet nervous about the idea of independence, often willing to try something alone for one activity, but preferring to enjoy the next activity with Mom,” said Watauchi.
At about nursery-school age (3- to 4-year-olds), children begin to do Kindermusik without parents. That appeals to preschoolers’ love for pretending, with songs put to movement and storytelling activities. Stimulating a child’s imagination continues into the next and final Kindermusik class. In the Young Child class (5- to 7-year-olds), activities are geared a little more toward developing the voice and instrument-playing.
To the children, all that matters is that they’re having fun. The activities, however, are all designed to stimulate some aspect of development. Dancing is for coordination and balance, holding a shaker in each hand is for bilateral coordination, the Kindermusik theme, the “Hello Song,” that starts each session, incorporates every child’s name and encourages children to get to know each other.
Everything done in a Kindermusik class is in English. It’s very much an of-the-moment experience without performance pressure.
“While [my daughter] is enjoying herself, she naturally picks up what the teacher is saying and doing in English,” says Izumi Hagita, mother of Sora, who is almost 3. For Hagita, Kindermusik was something she stumbled upon at the childcare center near her home in Meguro Ward. “It’s not that she’s learning English, but she’s enjoying herself in English.”
Although there is no research on using Kindermusik for second-language acquisition, Akiko Yoshizawa, who teaches Kindermusik at the American Embassy nursery school, Tokyo Union Church and in private classes to Japanese children, believes that this is an effective way to learn English.
“The children were developing their English much faster with Kindermusik,” Yoshizawa said. “I think it’s because they use the whole body. They see me sing and react to what I’m doing. They’re miming what I do and learning at the same time. Music makes the children feel relaxed. They think I’m playing with them.
“In the beginning, I would use both languages in the mother-child class for 1- to 2-year-olds. Moms would follow the lyrics through Kindermusik posters. Eventually children were picking up English through song and movement faster than the parents. And that’s natural.”
Similarly, Watauchi has observed that the vocal play and mimicking of foreign songs makes children receptive to other languages.
“There is possibly a leaning toward American or traditional folk songs, but Kindermusik introduces many multicultural songs as well as lots of classical compositions,” Watauchi said. “For example, just this past week, we were dancing to a traditional Muskogean [American-Indian] melody, playing bells to a West Indies song, dancing to the Israeli classic ‘Shalom Haverim,’ rocking to a Yiddish folk song and doing a circle dance while singing a French-Canadian folk song.”
There are currently four Kindermusik teachers in Japan, most affiliated with international or private schools in Tokyo. And Watauchi sees the need for many more. “When I talk about Kindermusik, I sound like I’m making a sales pitch,” she said. “But I sing and dance all day for a living. I’ve got the greatest job in the world.”