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Parent hack alert! Activity songs for toddlers and preschoolers are the swiss army knife of parenting tools. You never want to leave home without them.
Activity songs use a special combination of music and movement to address a child’s need for connection, play, novelty, and developing their rapidly growing brain.
To create this epic “play” list, I sought the expertise of two preschool music teachers. I’m certain you’ll love this compilation of brain-boosting activity songs for toddlers and preschoolers. Let’s get musical!
The Power Of Music And Movement In Early Childhood
You already know dance movement is fun for preschoolers, but did you also know dancing boosts a child’s working memory (short-term recall) and cognitive flexibility (ability to switch tasks). It’s the perfect educational activity: fun and functional!
In addition, music with or without movement is a powerful learning tool. A study looking at preschool music programs all over the world found music training improves a young child’s inhibitory control or the ability to control their impulses.
Inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility are the core components of executive function. Executive function is just a fancy umbrella term for critical mental, social, and emotional life skills.
You may recall our discussion on executive function in Emotional Development In Toddlers, but here we’ll take an even closer at how music functions in this process.
What Is Executive Functioning And Why Does My Child Need It?
As adults, we take for granted certain mental capabilities. Most grown-ups use short-term memory, multi-task, and do everyday things like wait in line with little effort. But why can’t young children do the same?
Adults often don’t realize they learned these critical skills for self-regulation in childhood. Neuroscientists call this set of skills executive function.
Executive function helps children direct the constant stream of thoughts within their minds. It also increases a child’s ability to organize external inputs–basically everything they perceive with their five senses.
Children utilize executive function to focus on tasks, follow directions, regulate emotional responses, and delay gratification. These skills are a major prerequisite for student success in the classroom, as well as life in general!
In fact, studies suggest high executive functioning is more important than language or math skills when assessing school readiness.
Helpful Tips For Parents From Music Teachers
Some children are blessed with musical parents who sing, write songs, play instruments, etc. For those parents, fostering a love of music and dance is probably pretty effortless.
On the flip side are families like mine who enjoy listening to music, love to do dances in the privacy of our homes, and simply want our children to have the benefits of a musical education without investing too much time.
To make the most of your activity songs, use these top tips shared by preschool music teachers:
- Modeling is key. Do all the movements and sing all the songs right along with your child. It’s how they learn!
- A little bit of music every day. Build music into your daily routines. A little is all it takes to see amazing benefits.
- Surprise and delight your children. Keep old songs fresh by switching up the lyrics, adding silly dance moves, or even trying out a different melody.
- Respect a child’s learning style. Never force your child to participate in activity songs. Your child may simply listen and observe, especially at first. That’s learning, too!
12 Activity Songs For Toddlers And Preschoolers
Now that we know the why’s and the how’s of activity songs, let’s get into the music! All 15 of the following songs are fantastic for learning at home or on the go.
1. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Even the youngest toddlers can follow along with the slow, gentle pace and simple hand movements in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It’s the perfect introduction to music and movement.
Check out this video for all the classic hand movements. (Be prepared for cuteness overload!)
Depending on your child’s sensory needs, Twinkle Twinkle works wonderfully in easing transitions (bedtime, leaving the house, cleaning up, etc.).
Did you know that singing calms the nervous system and increases emotional connection with your child? That’s why bedtime is an especially good time to practice your calmer songs.
2. Head Shoulders Knees and Toes
Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes invites children to touch (and learn!) major body parts as they sing a simple, repetitive tune.
This kindergarten classroom staple is perfect for getting some wiggles out of your antsy toddler on a rainy day indoors.
Scientists closely associate the song with improving self-regulation in children and even suggest using it as an indicator of overall academic performance! Incredible!
3. I’m A Little Teapot
I’m a Little Teapot checks the boxes for both dance and imaginative play. Children pretend they are little teapots, one arm on their hip and one arm held palm up to create a “spout.”
Kids wiggle and shake in a controlled manner to simulate the teapot building steam and pressure. This movement works their abdominal muscles while simultaneously giving their brains a workout.
Non-locomotor movements, or movements a child does while standing in place, are as fundamental as walking and running for a child’s development. And just as fun!
4. Five Little Monkeys (AKA No More Monkeys)
Some naughty little monkeys are jumping on the bed until…oops! One fell off and bumped its head.
Five Little Monkeys is both a countdown song and an activity song. Kids jump on the floor like a monkey before suddenly flopping to the ground with a loud “ow!” The big movements in this song strengthen your child’s gross motor skills.
(My favorite version of this classic song is Putumayo Kids: Animal Playground. In fact, the whole CD is full of beautiful multicultural songs.)
5. Itsy Bitsy Spider
Itsy Bitsy Spider cannot be sung without hand movements to visually represent the little spider climbing up (and falling down) a waterspout. It’s in the unwritten parent code of ethics.
In case you’re not familiar with this childhood classic or just need a refresher, this Youtube video shows you all the moves.
Interestingly, the tune for Itsy Bitsy Spider is an old folk song passed down through oral traditions. You can find versions of this same song in many other languages and cultures.
6. Wheels On The Bus
What toddler doesn’t love to beep an imaginary horn in the American standard Wheels on the Bus? Watch this video from the famous children’s performer Raffi for the classic hand motions.
When children swivel their pretend steering wheel or do other actions in this song, they are crossing the midline or twisting front to back and side to side.
Crossing the midline stimulates neural activity in both the right and left sides of the brain, building a stronger network of communication between the two. This is important for strong language development.
7. The Ants Go Marching
The Ants Go Marching features both counting practice and rhyming words. Research suggests young children receive vocabulary-learning benefits from hearing rhymes in children’s songs.
Toddlers love to stomp around to this song while preschoolers love the silly, unpredictable lyrics. The major action in this activity song is marching in a line, but feel free to add your own spin.
8. Five Little Ducks
Our family uses Five Little Ducks to introduce and practice counting by fingers. At first, five little ducks go out to play (hold up a full five fingers), but when the mother duck says “quack quack quack quack,” only four little ducks come back (hold up four fingers).
Repeat the verses over and over until no little ducks come back and your palm is closed. Sometimes we use blocks, toys, or even little rubber duckies instead of fingers too.
Toddlers and preschoolers may struggle a bit to copy your finger movements at first. It’s totally normal and expected! They’re still developing their fine motor skills.
Kids and adults play Pat-A-Cake anytime, anywhere–even sitting down on the floor. Many parents do this activity song with children snuggled in their lap.
It’s easy for young children to follow the simple clapping rhythm. Families can play Pat-A-Cake alone or with two people as a game. This video covers both styles.
Don’t forget to mark your child’s cake with the first letter of their name. Mix things up by baking cakes for members of your whole family, your friends, or even your pet!
10. See The Pony Galloping
One of the lesser-known songs on our list, See The Pony Galloping is a song I discovered with the program Musikgarten. They offer toddler music classes across the U.S.
Children gallop along to the song, getting faster and faster until the song slows and the little “horses” gradually make their way to the ground to “sleep.” Repeat as many times as you like.
See The Pony Galloping contrasts periods of high activity with periods of rest. When a child switches their thought patterns and inhibits their movement in this manner, they are building executive function.
11. Looby Loo
I’m a huge fan of songs that encourage participation and creativity while also meeting my son’s need for big movements. Looby Loo has all that and more.
In the song Looby Loo, singers choose a body part like an arm or leg to stretch out and wiggle before taking a quick spin and repeating. Watch this video to see Looby Loo played in a classroom.
Children contribute to the activity by thinking of new body parts. Anything from their knees to their hair is fair game! Don’t be surprised if you’re cracking up with laughter by the end.
12. The Old Grey Cat
The Old Grey Cat is an old-school nursery rhyme sung to an easy, repeating melody. Young children love to pretend they’re being sneaky and “creeping” around the house like a mouse.
In addition, little ones benefit emotionally, socially, and academically from the kind of dramatic play or role-playing you find in The Old Grey Cat.
The movements lend themselves to either a parent interacting with a single child or a family of multiple children. Add in some animal sounds like “meow” and “squeak” for extra silliness.
Activity Songs For Toddlers and Preschoolers Are Playful And Purposeful
Activity songs that combine music and movement provide more than simply a way to kill time while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or stuck inside on a rainy day. They’re brain food!
These activity songs come with an unbelievable number of benefits for zero cost and with zero musical skill required. I hope you enjoy spending some high-quality playtime with your little one using these activity songs for toddlers and preschoolers.
Our family plays Wheels On the Bus and Looby Loo almost every week! What are your go-to activity songs for toddlers and preschoolers?
Brittany Cantrell is an Epidemiologist at her local health department who oversees a team of beautiful, talented women. Though she specializes in infectious disease prevention, she is a strong advocate for all public health professionals. She is the owner and author of the mindful travel blog, The World Enough, where readers are empowered to live with presence and without fear. She was born and raised in the rolling foothills of the north Georgia mountains. In her spare time, you can find her helplessly pinned to the couch by one of her two cats, heading to a yoga class, or planning her next adventure.