In this post, I’d like to discuss specific activities that I used in my first semester teaching preschool guitar class. Before proceeding, it is important to understand the details of my classes. First, they’re held after school from 1-2 pm, which tends to be the most difficult time to teach students (who are looking to unwind after a long day). I am also not a regular teacher that they see every day; I come in on Monday and Wednesday for an hour each. This is an additional challenge, as the students are prone to test boundaries. Most of the students are three, with a few early four-year-olds sprinkled in.
A typical class structure consists of:
Opening activity (10 min)
Second activity (5 min)
Third Activity (5 min)
Drawing (5-10 min)
Snack + Story (5-10 min)
I found the opening activity to be very important, as it set the tone for the class. About halfway through the semester, I started using puppets as a way to engage the students. This has worked phenomenally well. The class would typically open with a puppet looking to learn guitar. I would have the students teach the puppet about different parts of the guitar (body, neck, head, etc.). For whatever reason, the students found it hysterical if the puppet pretended to be bad and bite parts of the guitar. I would respond, “NO, don’t do that!!” and as soon as I looked away, the puppet would start biting the guitar again.
One day, I brought in a policeman puppet and used it as a prop to inspire the students to sit in a good ready position with the instrument. I told the students that Policeman Pete was here to check the room for bad guys. I would then walk around with the puppet and have it inspect each kid to make sure that they were sitting in ready position.
Towards the end of our sessions, I introduced a fireman puppet. I made a pretend fire with colored paper and told the students to help the fireman locate the fire to put it out. I then placed the fire on different parts of the guitar and had students direct the fireman to it by naming the guitar part. Every time they named the correct part of the guitar, the fireman would put the fire out.
I found puppets to be an extremely effective teaching tool. I had a blast voicing the different characters and making a show for the students.
Another effective opening activity was waking up the stuffed animals. I like to use different animals—Elephant, Alligator, and Dog—to teach the students the string names. By the end of the semester, everyone knew where the Elephant string (E string) and the Alligator string (A string) were. At the beginning of class, I would tell the students that we needed to wake up the animals. To do this, I would hand everyone a guitar and we would strum and sing loudly (usually Old MacDonald). This was great because it got all of the students singing and playing, which really is the goal of the class.
Towards the end of the semester, one of the other teachers gave me a new activity which also worked well. After singing and playing Old MacDonald, we would transition into the Train. I would tell the students that Old MacDonald has a train running through his yard (“CHU-CHUUU”). One day, Old MacDonald woke up and decided to ride on this train. We (everyone in the class) decided to board it as well. I told the students that they could get the train started by singing and playing their guitars, so we’d make up a song on the spot. Once the train was moving, we relaxed and did slow strumming. I narrated a story about the train going up into the mountains (and put an emphasis on describing the scenery of our journey). Eventually, the train went into a dark tunnel. I told the students to strum quietly and slowly because a monster might be hiding in the tunnel. Inevitably, the monster would appear and start chasing the train, so we’d have to strum as fast as possible to escape until we returned to the safety of Old MacDonald’s farm. This was a great activity to teach students about dynamics in music—loud and quiet, fast and slow.
In terms of activities to get students naming and playing the correct strings, the best I have come up with thus far is having them feed the animals. I would tell them that the Elephant and Alligator woke up hungry and needed food; if we played the “E for Elephant” string, the elephant would eat its food. While the students were playing the E string, I would walk around the room and have the toy elephant nibble the string on each of their guitars, as if eating. Same procedure for Alligator and Dog.
Another activity I used to reinforce good sitting position was the shield. Sometimes, we would pretend that the alligator was a very mean animal looking to bite anyone it could find. I’d tell the students that their guitars were shields, and they could protect themselves by putting them up in ready position. I pretended to wrestle the alligator on my hands and knees, and eventually, it would break loose and make a run for a student. In that instant, the student would need to be in good ready position with the shield up.
I observed that many students in both classes liked to draw. So after we were finished with these activities, I’d have them sit at a table and draw characters made of musical notes. I demonstrated how to draw a note with a face, and students would try to recreate it. Sometimes we would draw guitars, and some of the students would just draw… anything. I was impressed by how drawing captivated their attention. They would often sit quietly and draw for five-plus minutes—and sometimes even ten minutes, which is an eternity at this age.
After drawing was snack time. During snack, I’d usually tell a story accompanied by the guitar. The most successful story was about a student who ate a magical grape (yes, they were eating grapes that day) and was able to fly around the room afterwards. His classmates could not believe it! But when they tried to tell the teacher, the teacher accused them of lying and sent the entire class to time-out, where they would be forced to stare at a wall for an hour without a single toy to play with. Luckily, the student still had some grapes left in his pocket, so they were able to escape time-out and the mean teacher by flying away. They flew to an old tree and found that it needed water, so they went to a stream to gather some. While they were there, the alligator (or whatever character I’d used as the “bad guy” during class) saw them and chased them back to the tree. The students had managed to collect enough water to give the tree, however, and when they did, it grew and protected them with its huge branches. Inside the tree, the students built tree forts and created a community just for kids….. You get the idea here. The class related best to stories centered around kids their age, with familiar conflicts such as time-out and mean teachers.