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Blog post on teaching music with toys.

Turning Toys Into Teaching Tools

When I first started teaching, everything I did in the classroom was fun. Excitement and joy showed in my teaching. As with any teacher, there came a time when the excitement became diminished by the daily grind. After one particularly rough day, I asked myself, “Would I want to be in my classroom? Would I enjoy the lesson that was prepared?” Something was missing. After much pondering and talking with more experienced teachers, I knew I needed to up my game. Finally, the conclusion came that I needed more fun in my classroom but without the chaos. Who doesn’t love a NONchaotic classroom, right? I had classroom management down but understood that it must be strongly considered when bringing back the fun. Thus began a journey of 15 years finding ways to accomplish fun, all the while maintaining control of my classroom. One of the answers that surfaced was toys.

Toys are not what teachers reach for first when they need a teaching tool. However, they can be effective in the classroom. Some that have proven to be easy and fun to use. Plus, using toys as a teaching tool is a great example of “thinking out of the box.” There are criteria however, that must be considered when deciding whether or not a toy would be effective in the classroom.

Here are a few things to think about when considering a toy.

  • Can classroom management be maintained with use of the toy?
  • Will this distract or engage students for the purpose of the lesson?
  • Is this toy easy to store/easy to grab?
  • Is this for me to use or the kids to use?
  • (If it is for the students) Is it practical/affordable to have one for each
    child to use?

Once those questions have been considered, find the cutest or coolest toy you can find and start teaching! Here are some examples of toys that I have used.

Fidget Spinner

A fidget spinner will fit in my pocket and I often use it for a timer. A good one will spin for a couple of minutes. This is not for the students, just for me. Students are not allowed to use it or even hold it. They all know my fidget spinner is a timer and off limits.

A student once said to his parent that I was cool. When the parent inquired why the he felt that way, he explained, “She doesn’t just use boring old timers, she uses fidget spinners to time us.”

Be different! Stand out!

In the picture the white spinner is 45 seconds and the blue one is two minutes. Give or take a second.

Ideas for Use

How do I use them you might ask? I time worksheets with the blue one. With the white fidget spinner, I allow students to jump wildly “ON their SPOT” until it stops. Then they must must jump on the beats that I instruct. If during my time with them, the wiggles take over because I didn’t realize it was a full moon, I will use a chant to have everyone jump up and then do a brain break move until the fidget spinner stops spinning. When it stops we sit back down and go back to work.

I use a lot transition songs from the following CD, Songs and Chants for Antsy Pants.

Toy Microphone

The Toy Microphone stays in my apron (on my stand) or my pencil holder, and I can grab it at a moment’s notice. It is important to note here …well, let’s do this. Raise your left hand and repeat after me. “I promise . . . to never . . . relinquish control of the microphone.” Keep control of the microphone. It stays on my desk which means it is off limits to everyone else.

Ideas for Use

Point the microphone toward and individual or the whole group – kids comprehend that they should echo what was just spoken or sung. No extra instructions are needed. Even if there is a class that needs explanation (usually Kindergarten and 1st Grade at the beginning of the year), it is only needed once.

Balls

Balls are wonderful and help illustrate many things. I use tennis balls and small basketballs. Both of these are pretty easy to store and affordable, therefore everyone gets one. I will say, get in the habit of saying “basketball.” The first time I ever used basketballs, I may have innocently phrased something in an inappropriate way. I had the idea that when I needed to explain something, to keep the kids from bouncing the basketballs, I would simply have them sit on their basketball. This was fine until the fifth graders came to music. When I needed to speak I said, “OK, EVERYONE SIT ON YOUR BALLS!” From that moment forward, I made sure I said, “basketballs.”

Ideas for Use

Balls are great for helping to illustrate that beats two, three, and four of half notes and whole notes are still beats. Demonstrate feeling them with a pulse of the hands while holding the ball. Bounce on beat “one” and pulse the ball on the other beats. This will help the kids to feel the other beats. Another way to use balls is use a big basketball to show the strong beat on beat “one.” Use smaller basketballs to show the weaker beats. No matter what meter you are teaching, this is a fabulous visual. I will usually divide the kids into strong beats and weak beats. Put the Strong Beats group on a strong instrument like a drum. Put the Weak Beats group on an instrument with a weaker sound like an egg shaker.

Toy Cars

Parking Dynamics Game
Parking Notes Game

Another toy that I love to use is toy cars. They were very easy to acquire. I simply sent a message home with the older fifth grade boys asking parents if they had old toy cars that their kids did not want anymore. I received more than enough. I have used toy cars with Preschool, Kindergarten, 1st Grade, and 2nd Grade.


Ideas for Use

Here are some games using toy cars. These games teach music symbols, or dynamics, or notes. A second way to play them involves simple rhythms that are age appropriate.
A few years ago, I had a student that had sensory issues. When we played with instruments it was too loud for him. He would wear my noise canceling headphones and sit in the corner and sort my bucket of toy cars. Sometimes by color, sometimes by size, and sometimes by type.

Symbol Station – another toy car game.

Toys can serve teaching different concepts and multiple purposes. They are usually a big hit with students and no, I do not lose control of my classroom when using them. Decide now to bring back the fun, find a toy you are willing to use and start teaching. Now practice with me. Say, “bas….ket….ball.”

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