Dr. Ellie Wolfe sets early childhood education to music in Drake University class

Two children and their guardians participate in the Mini Music Explorers class with Dr. Ellie Wolfe at Drake University — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Ask Dr. Ellie Wolfe the value of music education, and you’ll get no offhand answer.

“It’s key. It’s integral. It’s a part of the human condition,” Wolfe said. “I would say [that] for young children, but I also think that it should continue throughout life. And many people find ways to continue to interact, and mood regulate, and connect with people through music, even if it’s not creating your own.”

Wolfe is the assistant director of music education at Drake University and specializes in early childhood and elementary general music. They lead the Mini Music Explorers class on Drake’s campus — a series of classes for pre-K students and their caregivers based around song and movement.

Wolfe emphasizes the importance of building a sense of “anticipation” through music-based games, teaching toddlers to follow cues and work within a framework.

“There’s this idea of building anticipation because it’s how you build listening for what’s next. So, we built anticipation,” Wolfe said.

“We start and end with the same song with some modified sign language to it. That’s a part of the emotional and community building.”

One game involves having the class hold hands and walk in a circle as they sing along to a song, switching directions when the lyrics indicate.

“So that’s one that built anticipation,” Wolfe explained, “because you’re walking in one direction and then the song says, ‘the other way’ and now you have to walk in the other way.”

“To build anticipation, it really helps to know something well so you know what’s coming.”

Mini Music Explorers class plays the Circle Game — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Another game Wolfe calls Go and Stop has the class drumming on the floor with wooden rhythm sticks while singing. A person is chosen to yell “STOP!” whenever their heart desires, and everyone must pause until the next person chooses when to start drumming again. “So, we’re building this anticipation with this melodic line, and then when it pauses, now we know to play the next part.”

Games like this are centered around rules, but still serve to empower the players.

“We did a lot of the Go and Stop, in part because little kids get to control adults which is super enticing,” Wolfe said, “but also, rules become important to you when you have a say in creating them. They have meaning now. And creating music together isn’t always — but often is — going to have a lot of rules that you have to, at least at some level, agree on to be able to make something together. So, this is yet another way to explore that.”

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The group also plays a Ring Around the Rosie type game that involves falling down at the end, requiring a sense of patience from the kids.

“I promise you, they did not all wait to fall down three weeks ago,” Wolfe reported. “The one child who didn’t fall down clapped at the end. As we have been building the anticipation, it’s ‘wait for it, wait for it, wait for it! OK, now you get to fall down, and now we clap for you.’ So, that child was really connecting to that aspect of anticipation.”

In another game, kids roll tennis balls to a partner, and eventually within the whole group, while singing a song. “With each phrase they roll the ball to the other person. And the student that I was partnered with, she’s starting to say it. And she feels the anticipation like, ‘OK, so the ball and the chant start at the same time,’ which is really cool,” Wolfe said.

Dr. Ellie Wolfe leads the Mini Music Explorers class in a Roll the Ball game. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“[This] one little girl, she has made leaps and bounds in getting to know this music and showing anticipation — I purposely messed up; it’s a thing I do a lot with kids to see if they can catch it. Don’t expect that everyone’s going to be right all the time, especially adults. But, she and I were partners and we were rolling the ball back and forth. I purposely rolled it to her way too early. And then she held onto it until it was the right time for her to roll it back with the pattern we had been doing. So, she’s showing lots of anticipation.”

“It’s at the beat level, at the phrase level, at the whole song level. What motion comes next, or what sound comes next … That really helps kids develop their awareness of and ability to keep a beat,” Wolfe explained.

The girl’s grandpa, Reggie Greenlaw, brought her to Mini Music Explorers and believes the classes are doing his granddaughter good. “You think for one hour a week it wouldn’t stick as much as it has been,” he said. “She practices a lot of this just for fun. She’s very social more so than usual, and I really think it does have impact. Physical interaction with kids in a structured setting is doing a good thing.”

Wolfe noted “huge growth” in another of their young students. “He clearly knows which activities he wants to do. … Today was a new thing where he was really engaged in the Stop and Go when everybody played which was wonderful to see. He has developed facility to play the bell when he wants, to which is actually a fairly difficult mechanic to learn at first, especially when you’re not big into the fine motor skills. But he can hold the mallet. He always holds it on the right end. He doesn’t flip it over anymore, in just a few weeks. It’s been amazing to see both [of] their growth.”

The boy’s mom, Chelsea Stevens, said her son “is a very active child, so it’s kind of nice to funnel that activity and movement into something productive like dancing and singing. I think that will help him kind of become more aware with his body and stuff like that.”

Progress isn’t always seen so vividly as in these two students, Wolfe said.

“At this age, it’s appropriate, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing no growth. Often you don’t see it directly, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that’s happening even being in the space together.”

A former elementary school music teacher, Wolfe recalled a student who went half a school year without participating in class.

“And then I met with one of the child’s parents and they’re like, ‘Are you doing a song about a duck?’ and I was like, ‘Yes,’ and the parent said, ‘They won’t stop singing it at home!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m glad they’re singing somewhere!’ You just don’t know the impact you’re having some times directly.”

“Just because we can’t see them getting anything out of this, doesn’t mean they aren’t. And often kids who are off to the sides might start singing one of the songs at home. You’re like, ‘Oh! You were totally engaged!'”

Wolfe brought the idea for Mini Music Explorers to Drake shortly after she arrived in Des Moines. They approached Drake University Community School of Music (DUCSOM) director Cynthia Giunta, saying, “Hey, I’m am early childhood specialist and I’d love to do these classes.”

“Starting things like this can take some time. Then the pandemic hit and we paused. So, we started about five weeks ago. We finally felt at a place where people knew their comfort level of whether or not they wanted to come, and the university had opened up enough that we could offer things like this, so we started to.”

Mini Music Explorers’ curriculum is based on research, including that of Jonathon Bolduc and Melanie Evrard.

“Recent discoveries in psychology, neuroscience and education have contributed new insights into the field of musical development in early childhood,” the Canadian researchers write in their 2017 study Music Education From Birth to Five: An Examination of Early Childhood Educators’ Music Teaching Practices. “Intrauterine sonar measurements have revealed that the fetus is capable of reacting to familiar words and songs from the second term of pregnancy. During the first years of life, toddlers rapidly develop the ability to identify, discriminate, and reproduce a variety of distinct sound sequences.”

Bolduc and Evrard agree that “music plays an inestimable role in early childhood development,” but not all early childhood educators (ECEs) have the skills to integrate music into education.

A study cited in their paper asked ECEs to self-report their musical education and to what frequency (never, sometimes, often, all the time) they included music into lessons. Those with more musical experience felt more comfortable to incorporate songs, nursery rhymes, poems and motor activities opposed to ECEs with little music experience.

“The main finding was that ECEs with little musical knowledge use more activities related to perception. They integrate fewer activities that call for some kind of analysis, creation, or music appreciation. In contrast, ECEs with good musical knowledge use a greater variety of practices as well as more activities involving music perception and music production. However, their practices are less diversified than those used by ECEs with in-depth musical knowledge. The latter integrate a larger number of creative activities, but also consider music appreciation activities less often.”

Despite the benefits of music education activities, some parents balk at the idea of encouraging kids to sing or drum on objects.

“One of the most important things is letting kids make noise, which is really hard for some parents,” Wolfe said. “And that doesn’t mean [in] all settings or free-for-all. But for musical development, one of the biggest keys is feeling comfortable and being willing to make sound — with objects, body percussion, with your voice … really encouraging sound exploration, I think, is a big part of it.”

Wolfe has had an extensive background with teaching music. Wolfe earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado–Boulder. Wolfe taught band, orchestra and choir to pre K-12th graders before moving on to instruct undergrads in music education and supervise master’s independent studies and research at Drake.

Aside from their teaching, Wolfe also serves as the Early Childhood Chair for the Iowa Music Education Association, North Central Division Representative for Early Childhood Music Special Research Interest Group, secretary on the board for the Early Childhood Music and Movement Association, and an advisory board member for the Music Educators Journal.

Mini Music Explorers classes are sold in sessions: five weeks for $80. Classes take place Saturdays from 10 to 10:40 a.m. Parents and guardians can register their children online for the next session: March 26 and April 2, 9, 16 and 23.