Teaching Very Young Students

Recently my studio has seen an influx of very young students ranging from ages 2-4. I have successfully started 4 and 5 year olds but never 2 or 3.

My first observation was the noticeable difference in cognitive ability between a 2 and a 4 year old. And it makes sense. By 4 the student has had almost double the life experience. In terms of teaching it translates to new techniques and approaches for working with different age groups.

My current strategy with three year olds — and it seems to be working well — is one of engagement through play. I am able to get very young students to learn and recognize which strings are being played. I am able to demonstrate good sitting position and for them to demonstrate to me that they are capable of sitting nicely with the guitar. They can also identify the parts of the guitar (head, neck, body, back, etc). With all of my three year olds I was able to accomplish this within the first one to two months of private instruction.

As mentioned before, my teaching style is engagement through play. I use different props and stuffed animals and students learn to recognize strings and parts of the guitar with the stuffed animals. This seems to work for most students — keep in mind everyone is different and I firmly believe no one method or way of teaching works. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and lauded educator, once said in regards to teaching his own children, “My theory is the best way to teach is to have no philosophy. Is to be chaotic and confusing in the sense that you use every possible way of doing it.”

While I am not chaotic and confusing to the students, my approach is to tap into the individual in each student, the likes and dislikes, and capture the imagination through play. And through that play we learn the guitar. So, for example, when learning the E string I currently use a stuffed animal elephant. The elephant represents the E. I tell the student while holding the elephant, “Elephant woke up hungry today. This is awful. Elephant needs food. WAIT! I know how we can help the elephant. Quick, play this string.” I demonstrate how to play the E string. Every time they play the E string the elephant eats food. I will then take the stuffed animal and hold it up to the students guitar at the E string to demonstrate that it is eating. The students make the connection! And at the beginning of each lesson I have my students feed the Elephant by playing the E string. Three year olds are quite capable if they are being taught properly. Anyone following my instagram can see clips of me working with an elephant with a three year old. I have stuffed animals now for each string.

One activity for getting students to sit nicely with the guitar and to teach general sitting position is the Alligator game. The alligator that I use for teaching…. you guessed it the A string, I pretend alligator woke up and is very unhappy today. And hungry. This alligator is dangerous and might attack at any time. I then act out being bitten by the stuffed animal. I tell the student that the guitar is like a shield. It will protect you when held properly. I demonstrate the Alligator trying to bite me, but now with the shield up (guitar in correct position) I am protected. After this I pretend to lose control of the alligator. I move the stuffed animal quickly towards the student while saying, “quick get the shield up. get in ready position!!!” The alligator bounces harmlessly of the guitar. Students generally LOVE this game. I did this with a six year old recently and it still worked well. One note on this, for a very young 2 or 3 year old be careful because it can be easy to make this game too scary.

I recently incorporated having students wake the animals up in the beginning of lesson. This is a great way to learn about forte, LOUD playing and singing. Lately we have been playing and singing Old MacDonald. I have the students strum with me (doesn’t matter what they are strumming just getting them to strum on open strings is fine) and tell them that we need to be loud to wake the animals up. Once the animals are awake I transition into the elephant game and alligator game. We’ll typically strum and sing a few songs throughout the lesson.

Occasionally students will bring in a favorite toy. This is a great opportunity to use the toy as a prop in the game. I once had a student bring in police cars and firetrucks. Instead of using the elephant and alligator we played “capture the bad guy” and I was able to get the student playing in the context of a game/play but with his own toys. This is a more advanced teaching technique a it takes improvisation skills (have to create an engaging story on the spot) and can be difficult to figure out how to bring it back to the guitar. You also have to be comfortable coming up with ideas and games in front of parents sitting in on the lesson.

These are a few techniques I have developed for working with very young students. I have been teaching at a preschool as well and will eventually touch on the difference between 1 on 1 and classroom teaching when it comes to this age.