Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Vote For Jim Gill?

Two years ago I began working on a new musical game that would involve words that referred to body parts, but also had other meanings.  Words such as "back," "nose (knows)," and, of course, "rear." 

After compiling a list of words that would fit my scheme I began to construct rhyming phrases.

Lets knuckle down and cut the waste.
Shoulder burdens that we face.

At first I was thinking only of the opportunity for listeners to cheerfully focus on the active playbending knuckles and pointing to their waists, shoulders and faces.  Anyone familiar with my songs knows that creating movement games like this, in the context of rhymes, is my signature style. 

I soon realized, however, that the rhyming phrases I was creating sounded more and more like a campaign speech and, with a smile, I playfully pursued that approach.  The result is "Vote For Jim Gill," a song in which the lyrics all reference body parts, but also reference the sorts of promises we hear during election season from candidates. 

Give the song a listen and you'll hear a whole series of empty statements and promises that you might hear other candidates say out on the campaign trail.  But I am the only candidate that could have strung them together in ridiculous rhyme and created an active movement game out of them as I did.  Thats a fact.

Who would have guessed that this year I would be the one candidate that so many people can....well....get behind. 

The song is just one of 14 new musical games on the recording.  There are finger plays, sing-alongs and jump-alongs.  The songs were created as opportunities for children and the adults that work with and care for them -parents, grandparents, care givers and educators - to sing and play together. 

"Vote For Jim Gill"  is a challenging listening game for young children and might also, perhaps, help adults maintain a sense of humor during this election season.  My hope is that this game gets played on and on for years when this current election is just a distant memory.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I Have a Favorite

I have a favorite.

It is not a favorite CD of  mine.

It is not a favorite song.

It is a favorite moment.

At each of my concerts there is a point at which I sing my song “Face The Facts,” an active movement game with some silly word play:

We must face the fact. Our swimming arms are back.
They are splashing, flapping, stretching, lapping one full mile exact.
We must face the fact. Our swimming arms are back.

Watching everyone rousingly pantomime "swimming arms,"  "scissor legs," and "driving hands" is fun….but those moments aren’t my favorite. 

My favorite moment is when I look out at the children, parents and grandparents as I sing:

We must face the fact. Our binocular eyes are back.
They are peering, peeking, scanning, seeking needles in haystacks.
We must face the fact. Our binocular eyes are back. 

I break into a smile at every concert as I see each family’s “binocular eyes”….not on me, but on each other.  Moms and dads make silly faces as they peer into the eyes of their children and the children excitedly stare back with “binocular eyes” of their own.   Grandparents join in the play as well.  As the verse ends it is not unusual for everyone to sneak in a little hug before the next verse. 

This moment, at each concert,  reminds me why I picked up a banjo and started strumming.  Unlike most musicians, it’s not because of the music.  It is because music provides so many opportunities for children, parents and grandparents to play together.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Opportunity Missed....An Opportunity Taken

Some memories stick with you.

My wife and I were traveling and stopped into a pizza restaurant for dinner. As we entered we saw a dad and his daughter, maybe 4 years old, sitting at opposite sides of a booth.  Because both were leaning over the table, their heads were pretty close together. They looked as though they might be whispering secrets or telling each other jokes.  Who knew?  But it was a dad and his daughter obviously sharing a special time together.  My wife turned to me and said, "This reminds me of you on one of your daddy-daughter nights."

It was only as we walked past them to our own table that we saw the full picture.  The dad and his daughter were both leaning over the table they shared......and each was intimately involved with a personal digital device.  The father was typing on his ipad and the daughter was watching a movie on her portable dvd player. 

I suppose it’s the missed opportunity that I remember.

Right now I am on an airplane sitting two rows behind another dad and his daughter - maybe 3 years old.  (Mom is across the aisle.)  There has been LOTS of talking, LOTS of laughing, plenty of books, and even a bit of active "hugging and crashing" play that was, the mom thought, too rough for an airplane. 

And I am smiling at an opportunity that is being taken full advantage of. 

I’m flying back from Colorado where I led a concert sponsored by the Denver Public Library.  They take the American Library Association’s Every Child Ready to Read initiative very seriously and, I’m honored to say, arranged a concert with me as a developmental play experience for families. 

Every Child Ready to Read is research-based, but remains wonderfully simple and straightforward with its message.  Five simple practices are recommended that prepare a young child to succeed at reading and, of course, succeed in school.  For this type of success, the American Library Association recommends that parents, caregivers and young children:

Talk together.
Sing together.
Play together.
Read together.
Write together.

The idea behind my concert in Denver was to engage children, parents and grandparents in a joyful experience of singing, playing and even playfully reading together in the hopes that this kind of play will continue at home.  I had a wonderful time…….but I’m having just as much fun watching this dad and his daughter on the plane. 

It’s unlikely that the dad, sitting two rows ahead of me, is familiar with Every Child Ready to Read.  I’m sure he’s talking and reading and playing with his daughter because it’s a way to pass the time.  And when you have an opportunity to have your 3 year old on your lap giggling and cuddling, it’s a great way to pass the time.  That’s the beauty of the library initiative.  It’s not a set of chores to “add on” to our already busy lives.  It’s a set of practices that fit into a joyous life with a child. 

And, for the record, I doubt that the child in the restaurant is doomed to school failure.  It doesn’t work that way. 

But, sitting on this airplane, I can see that the dad in the restaurant missed two opportunities.  He missed the opportunity to do a few things that, research shows, promote development.  And he missed the opportunity to have as much fun as the dad ahead of me is having. 

For more information on Every Child Ready to Read, visit: http://everychildreadytoread.org/

And here is some footage of children, parents and grandparents singing and playing together at a recent concert of mine:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Twenty Years of Music Play

I sometimes tell people that I began calling my songs “music play” when I realized that I was interested in more than just performing songs for children.  I wanted some way of expressing that the songs are created as an invitation for children and the adults that care for them to play together. 

That’s true, but the full story is a bit more involved.

I invented the term “music play” when my producer (and good friend) Steve Rashid tried to –in the nicest way – help me understand that my songs could really be improved with a bit of….well…..song writing. 

Our discussion began with a consideration of the title song of my first recording , Jim Gill Sings The Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes:

Please don’t feed me black-eyed peas.
You know what they will do.
For if you feed me black-eyed peas
I’ll have to sneeze.

(and the children shout)

(The verses repeat with “macaroni and cheese” and “chocolate chip cookies.”)

Steve sat at his piano and said, “The sneezing itself is not part of the melody.  And the piece stops and starts and stop and starts.  There is no consistent rhythm.   Don’t take this wrong, but it’s not really a song.”  He then demonstrated some ways that we could “musicalize” the sneezes and employ other techniques to craft a more traditional song. 

He was right…….if a person is thinking “musically.”  But I knew that “The Sneezing Song” was, in its simplest form, a favorite in the play groups that I led each week for children and families.  Children loved the anticipation before the big exclamatory sneezes.  In fact, that was really the point.  It was a game.  A waiting game with some simple rhymes.  And the simplicity allowed children of all abilities to be a part of the play. 

I told Steve that I could imagine that his ideas would make the piece a better song, but that I was afraid it would take something away from the game.  And, for me, conveying the play was the point. 

I finally said, “That’s the point with all of these songs.  They are really music play.”

Steve and I have developed a great partnership, beginning with that conversation 20 years ago.  We have both developed a sense of when, in a recorded piece, the music is the primary means to get children singing and dancing along.  Steve’s expertise is required in those instances.

And we have come to recognize when the play is most important and it’s best to keep it simple: 


Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Habit of Happiness

I had the honor of being quoted in a recent newspaper op-ed piece that emphasized the importance of parents and children spending time playing together.  Here is what I said:

"In my lectures and workshops I have spent so much time detailing how there are SO MANY developmental benefits to parents getting involved in play with their children that I fear I may have neglected to mention the most important reason of all. It's a joy! When we take time to play with our children we are sharing the habit of happiness with them. That's a habit we can hope they hold on to for the rest of their lives."

The habit of happiness.  I was proud of that line!  Perhaps I should use that phrase more often!

But when the piece appeared in the newspaper I started thinking.......maybe those words are simply too good to just happen to roll off my tongue.  Had I heard this phrase or read this line before?  If so, where could that have been?  I had a suspicion.

If something simple and profound has been written about play, I thought, it most likely can be traced back to Maria Piers.  She was one of the founders of the Erikson Institute and taught the celebrated course on play there for many years.  Sure enough, this morning I found my copy of The Gift of Play and discovered, on pages 43 and 44, this passage:

"........pretend play.......is one of the most valuable kinds, perhaps the most valuable kind, of play in which preschoolers can engage.  Such play develops creativity, intellectual competence, emotional strength and stability - and, wonderfully, feelings of joy and pleasure.  The habit of being happy."

So I did not use Maria's exact words.......and I used them in a different context: in my case,  in a discussion of parent-child play.  But the key phrase that makes you stop and think and smile - "the habit of being happy" - belongs to Maria Piers. 

I hadn't read The Gift of Play in over fifteen years.  This morning, as I sat and read it again,  I realized just how influential the book - and its simple wisdom - has been in my own work and my own way of thinking.   In fact, as I read through the book I realized that one of my goals, writing a book about play, is rather silly.  The book I'd like to write has already been written.  It's called, of course, The Gift of Play, co-authored by Maria Piers and Genevieve Millet Landau (who was editor-in-chief of Parents’ Magazine). 

Sadly, the book, published in 1980, has been out of print for many years.   I found my copy long ago at a used bookstore.

On this read I couldn't stop myself from highlighting passage after passage.  In future posts I'll share some of my favorites.  And I promise to give Maria full credit for her gift of using truly inspiring language to celebrate play.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Literacy Specialist

Last week I was on a tour through central Illinois leading concerts in church basements and fellowship halls for families involved in the Head Start program.

(Head Start is a federal program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.)

It was at one of these concerts that I spotted a literacy specialist doing exactly what early childhood literacy specialists do best.......looking for opportunities to help young children actively listen and make sense of the language around them and helping them learn to pay special attention to those parts of the language that are known to aid children in becoming successful readers.

I suppose this person caught my eye, at first, because he was a man.  It is still uncommon to see men working in the early childhood field and I’m always happy when there are, at least, two of us in the room!    

But what kept my attention was the way that this gentleman interacted with the child next to him. 

At one point in the concert I led everyone in one of my rhyming games. The "Poison Ivy" song. 

Poison ivy under bushes.
Poison ivy under trees.
Poison ivy in the forest.
Poison ivy on my knees.

Poison ivy makes me scratch, scratch, scratch........
Itch and scratch my knees.

In the beginning of the song I noticed the literacy specialist playfully and enthusiastically "scratching" his knees as I sang the rousing chorus. The student next to him watched him and laughed.

Then, as I sang the lines of the second verse (leading up to the chorus), I saw that the literacy specialist had tilted his head a bit and was making a point of acting as if he was concentrating closely on the words:

Poison ivy by the daisy.
Poison ivy by the rose.
Poison ivy by the flower
That I smelled with my nose.

As I sang the chorus about scratch, scratch, scratching my nose, I saw the gentleman pretend, once again, to scratch his nose.  He turned and faced the student (a young girl) and, of course, the child joyfully “scratched” her nose as well.

During the third verse the specialist would alternate, dramatically, between listening to my words (with the obvious rhyming cues) and making eye contact with the student.  It was almost as though he was saying, "Do you hear what I hear?  Listen....."  

And then, of course, he and the child excitedly "scratched" along once again.

This kind of play went on, over and over, for the five verses of the song. 

The literacy specialist, through his play, demonstrated the active part of the song to get the student's attention. But then, through his subtle cues, he also indicated that if she listened to the words she might also start to guess the rhymes before I even sang them!

Anyone watching could have seen the teaching, the learning and the laughter!

But here is the best part of the story.  The man is not a professional literacy specialist......or even a staff member at Head Start.  He is a dad.  A dad who, at that moment, was simply sitting next to his daughter and playing. 

He is fortunate enough to be involved in a program that offers opportunities for children and adults to have proximity to one other and to interact.  In my experience, adults have a natural inclination to become teachers in this way when they are sitting next to the children they care about.  And, with guidance, those caregivers not inclined to get involved can become better at doing so. 

Thankfully, there are programs all over the country that encourage this sort of proximity and interaction and, when needed, offer guidance.   Public libraries offer story times for children and the adults that care for them.  There is a wonderful program called Parents as Teachers.  And, of course, there is Head Start.

When these programs do it right, moms and dads and caregivers do the work of literacy specialists.

And, from the smiles and laughs I observed last week between that dad and his daughter, I know this:

In this instance, in his new role as a literacy specialist, that dad didn't mind going to work at all!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Toy Boat

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to consider the importance of play in the early childhood classroom and the role that we adults have in creating opportunities for children to make profound discoveries through play.

One incident that I remember, from years ago, always makes this clear......and makes me smile.

I was visiting the Whitney Young Early Childhood Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana and had shared, during my concerts there, a song that I created to celebrate the tongue twister "Toy Boat." At each concert, after singing the song, I led the preschoolers and kindergarteners in a follow-up game.  Children could take turns coming forward to say the words "toy boat," in the microphone, three times.  And, of course, they had to say the words fast.  That's what makes a tongue twister challenging and fun.  It's what makes a tongue twister play.

You know the results. 

"Toy boat, toy boit, toy boit!"

And so on.

In between concerts I joined some of the preschoolers out on the playground and overheard a number of them continuing to attempt to complete the challenge.

"Toy boat, toy boat, toy boit." (laughter)

"Toy boit, toy boit, toy boit." (more laughter)

One little boy ran up to me excitedly and said, "Hey Jim Gill!  I've got a new one!"

I wasn't exactly sure of what he was referring to, so I asked him what his "new one" was.

He looked straight at me and proudly said, "Foy foat, foy foat, foy foat."

I smiled a big GENUINE smile.  Then I gave him a playful challenging look. 

"Oh yeah?  Moy moat, moy moat, moy moat!"

He stopped for a moment.  I could see that he was thinking, just by watching his face.

His reply:  "Doy doat, doy doat, doy doat!"

The young child was, of course, making phoneme substitutions.  Substituting letter sounds like this is a very important early literacy skill.  Beginning reader books, like Dr. Seuss' famous "Cat in the Hat," were created to exercise this ability.

And this young boy just discovered it for himself.  He began by playing a tongue twister and, once playing with words and sounds, began to play with different sound (letter) substitutions.

No worksheet was needed.  No computer was needed.  All the child needed was a caring adult to share a silly word game and some play time for him to expand on that game.

What makes this story so memorable to me, years later, is that when this young boy shared his creation, he not only shared his discovery but his excitement about the discovery.

Play is inspiring.  Not only is it inspiring for children to learn and master a new skill, but the discovery process itself is inspiring. 

No one can say the same about worksheets or “screen time.”