Water play – it conjures up visions of children scooping and pouring, floating things and sinking them, measuring and washing and splashing and laughing. Huge fun, and there are a thousand things to be learned at the water trough. But water play … and music? It doesn’t seem like a natural combination but it’s amazing what you can do with a few household items, some stuff from your garden shed and a water play trough!
My first exposure to water and music wasn’t working in child care – it was watching the great percussionist Trilok Gurtu dipping gongs, bells, cymbals and sea-shell rattles into a bucket of water during a John McLaughlin Trio concert many years ago. The unearthly tones he produced delighted me – shimmering waves of ever-changing tones that swooped up and down in pitch.
I have a very broad definition of music. To me, music is sound organised in time. All sounds can be music, and with water play we can explore:
- timbre (tone)
These are the building blocks of all music, and water offers a unique playground for exploring them. It also offers a fantastic way to explore the science of sound in a way that is meaningful and understandable for young children.
We aren’t going to be creating songs (although singing may happen); we aren’t going to be creating performances (although that may happen too). Instead this is about exploration and learning through the joy of free play. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be wet and it’s going to be fun. Get your water play clothes on (budgie smugglers optional) and let’s get playing!
Here’s a video of just a few of the sounds you can make with water. It’s by no means exhaustive: there a many other options, but think of it as a library of possibilities which you can offer to children. Watch it now – the rest of this post won’t make any sense otherwise.
The materials in the video are:
- Stainless steel and aluminium bowls – various sizes
- Stainless steel and aluminium pot lids – various sizes
- Various strikers (plastic mixing spoons or bamboo or plastic chopsticks work well; metal strikers also work well for a more clangourous tone).
- Short lengths of garden hose
- Plastic drink bottles
- Spray bottle
- Random lengths of 90mm PVC stormwater pipe
- A guiro made from 40mm corrugated plastic drain pipe (not the type with slits in it)
- A shaker made from 40mm PVC pipe with gravel inside
- A packing tape drum (see here for a video of how to make one for yourself)
- A plastic canister (or any plastic container or small bucket)
(I’ve included a section at the end of this post that briefly explains the physics of how these sounds are created; it’s not essential to read this but it’s interesting and children may well ask you those awkward “but why?” questions. Read this section and you will be ready for those questions and better able to support the children’s science learning.)
So how should we offer these options to children?
Well, first up – not all at once! There’s enough here for many interesting sessions of water play, and some instruments work better together than others.
And secondly, not the way I’ve done it in the video! I’ve used a didactic teaching method that’s appropriate for the people I’ve made the video for: adults. But that’s not the way that children learn.
Children learn best through hands-on free play and exploration with minimal guidance from adults. That’s important enough to be worth repeating.
Children learn best through hands-on free play and exploration with minimal guidance from adults. The more you direct them in their play the less play-like it becomes and the less they will learn. You are there to provide the environment in which learning can happen; you are there to help extend their play; you are there to provide supervision (insert obligatory “water play can be hazardous, always supervise children around water, yada yada” statement of the bleeding obvious here).
Introducing musical water play is as simple as placing a few mixing bowls, pot lids and strikers in the water play trough and saying something like “I’ve put musical instruments in the water play trough”. Then stand back and see what happens.
(This is going to get very wet! Do not wear your gorgeous designer duds for water play. Or mud play. Or – well, if you are going to work with children just don’t wear anything that you mind getting glue, glitter or gunge on.)
I suggest that you don’t get directly involved in the water play yourself at first – that comes later. By standing back you give children the opportunity to explore and to make discoveries for themselves.
Children will almost always work out for themselves that the bowls can be played as bells. As they play water will end up in the bowls; children may notice for themselves that the sound changes pitch when a bowl has water in it – or they may not. You don’t have to be too eager to draw their attention to this, just observe. Later, a comment like “that bowl sounds different now – I wonder why?” might be all you need to do.
Follow the children’s lead; they will probably try out other options and materials; you might want to prompt them with an open-ended question like “what else could we use to make music in the water?”, but this is often unnecessary. Once children realise that they can make music with water the hard bit may be preventing them from putting your expensive musical instruments in the trough. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
Respond to any questions but at first try to limit your own talk to observations of what the children are doing: “Sara is playing the big bowl with the spoon”, or to simple statements about the sounds being made, like “the bowl makes a much deeper sound with water in it”, rather than explanations, or closed questions like “is it a loud sound or a quiet sound?”
If the child can answer that question accurately then asking it was pointless – they already know the answer! If they can’t answer it accurately then asking it was also pointless – far better to just make the observation that “Sara is playing the bells quietly” (or loud, as the case may be – my bet is on “loud”, with a side-bet on “ear-splitting”!)
Once children have had a good chance to explore through free play, now is a good time to get more actively involved in the play yourself. By playing alongside the children:
- you can actively model different ways of playing the instruments
- you can play simple repeated patterns, like “big bowl, middle bowl, small bowl”
- you can comment on your own playing using language that describes the sounds you are making and the ways you are playing
- you can introduce music concepts like “fast and slow”, “high and low”, & “loud and soft”
- you can talk about pattern, pitch, tone and rhythm
- you can use open-ended questions to stimulate discussion and thinking about the music and sounds
By doing this you can extend the children’s play in ways that they might not have considered, and tease out the underlying learning. There are many opportunities here for intentional teaching. The Australian Early Years Learning Framework defines intentional teaching as “educators being deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in their decisions and actions … intentional teaching is the opposite of teaching by rote”. Intentional teaching builds upon and extends children’s learning through play – it does not replace it! Keep it playful, keep it fun.
Of course, some of the items in the video aren’t as immediately obvious as mixing bowls. For things like the garden hose, the PVC pipe and the water bottle pan pipes I would suggest just modelling it yourself and children will automatically try it out. These instruments go well together, as they are all quite quiet; they would be drowned out by the mixing bowls or drums.
This is the point where things will get really wet and wild. It won’t take your average child more than about 10 seconds to realise that the hose works equally well for blowing water as it does for blowing air. Excellent! Water play is supposed to be wet. It’s also supposed to be fun, and what’s more fun than blowing water at each other and at the cowering educator? Just remind yourself that the children are learning all sorts of things about air pressure and hydraulics. Towels are strongly recommended.
Pan pipes are difficult for young children – very few 3 year olds have the lip and breath control necessary for playing them, but most 4 year olds will get it with practice – lots of practice! It can take a long time. Don’t worry about children “failing”; failure is a necessary part of learning. “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement” C. S. Lewis.
The other instruments can be introduced as you see fit. Do this over time, and make sure that you give the children plenty of opportunities to explore and re-explore the instruments you have already introduced. Young children love repetition, and through repetition comes mastery.
What else could you do? How about using spatulas and fly-swats to pat the water? Or drop stones into the water and listen to the “gloop!” Or use a garden hose set to “jet” to play the bowls. Or swish the water with leafy branches. Or float wooden, plastic and metal bowls and trays upside down and play them like drums (use a hot glue gun to stick little pieces of polystyrene around the rim to make them float). The possibilities really are only limited by your imagination.
So: a few ideas. Where will your children take them? I would love to hear how it goes for you! Have you got other ideas for extending music and water play? Please tell me about them!
My thanks to Lorraine for the use of her water play trough and her Family Day Care outdoor area for filming the video!
The physics of the sound effects – why they sound so weird!
1. Why does the pitch fall when you dip a vibrating pot lid into water?
Water is much more dense and massive than air. As you dip the vibrating lid into the water, the water resists the vibrations – the dense water is harder to move than less dense air because it has greater inertia. This resistance slows the vibrations of the lid, and the result is a drop in pitch, since slow vibrations = low pitch.
2. Why does the pitch fall when you add water to a mixing bowl?
Partly for exactly the same reason as for a pot lid. As you add water to the bowl it sinks in the water and the dense water resists and slows the vibration. But when you add water you are also adding mass to the bowl, and all other things being equal more mass = slower vibration, so the pitch drops even further than just from sinking the bowl. (You can test this out yourself: float an empty bowl in water; press down with one finger in the centre of the bowl until the top of the bowl is almost level with the water. Test the pitch by playing the bowl with a beater. Now, add water until the bowl is floating with only the rim above the water. Test the pitch again – it will be much lower.)
3. Why do you get those strange tonal shifts when water moves inside a bowl or a pot lid?
A bowl or a pot lid isn’t just vibrating at one frequency – the sound is composed of many frequencies all sounding at once, some higher and some lower. As the water moves around it alters the resonance of the vibrating object and some of the frequencies are amplified or reduced in volume, causing that strange shimmering effect.
There are several instruments that have been invented to take advantage of this effect of which the best known is the Waterphone which has a chamber in which you place a small amount of water. You may never have heard of it, but you’ve definitely heard it – it’s a staple of Hollywood sound effects.
If you watch the water in the pot lid while you play it you can actually see the sound waves moving across the surface of the water; this is a good science experiment to show children that sounds are waves. Waves in air aren’t easily visible, but in water you can observe them.
4. Why does the pitch of the water bottle pan pipe change when you add more water to it?
In a pan pipe the pitch depends on the size of the air chamber – a small chamber has a higher resonant frequency (the frequency at which the air “wants” to vibrate). As you add water you reduce the size of the chamber and the pitch goes up.
5. What causes the strange tone when you sing down the garden hose?
Firstly, the sound of the bubbles is overlaid on the sound of your singing, so of course you are hearing the bubbles as well as your voice.
Secondly, the water acts as an audio filter – it selectively removes higher frequencies from the sound of your voice, making it muted and muffled. As the bubbles of air aren’t uniform in size the amount of filtering and the consequent change in tone is altering all the time, creating ever-changing tonal shifts.
6. What causes the notes when you bang the PVC pipe into water?
When the pipe enters the water it seals the end of the pipe and sends a shock wave through the air inside the pipe, making the air vibrate (this is exactly the same effect as playing a thongophone; it’s not the plastic vibrating that makes the sound – it’s the air inside the pipe vibrating; technically instruments that work this way are called “plosive aerophones”).
A closed pipe has a resonant frequency approximately half that of an open pipe of the same length. So if you bang the pipe in and then immediately lift it out you get two notes – a deep one as it goes in and a much quieter note around an octave higher when you lift it out. It’s hard to hear these two separate notes in the video, but if you try it yourself you will hear them.
7. What causes the change in sound quality as you dip the guiro into water?
First, the guiro is made from an open tube – so just like the PVC pipe it is acting as a resonant chamber, but an open one, so it has a high pitch (it’s also much shorter, so the resonant frequency is higher again). As you dip the end into the water the pipe is now closed, so the resonant frequency drops by around one octave – this changes the frequencies that are being accentuated by the resonant chamber. Suddenly the instrument sounds much fuller and deeper, because the resonant chamber is amplifying the deeper frequencies produced by the guiro.
As you dip the guiro further and further into the water the size of the resonant chamber is getting smaller. Just as with the pan-pipes, a smaller chamber has a higher resonant frequency, so it amplifies the higher frequencies in the guiro’s sound.
But there’s more to it than that – the same as for the pot lid, the water resists the guiro’s vibration, so its vibrations slow and get deeper; however the effect of the resonant chamber is more obvious than this lowering in pitch – but if you listen carefully you can hear it. Also, the water tends to filter out high frequencies more than low frequencies, because high frequencies have less energy than low ones. So it’s complex! The filtering effect is also what changes the sound of the shaker.
8. Why does the drum’s sound change as you dip it into water?
Firstly, because you are changing the size of the resonant chamber – just as with the guiro a smaller chamber amplifies the higher frequency components of the drum’s sound.
Secondly, when the water is in contact with the drum skin it lowers the frequency in exactly the same way as for the bowls.
Thirdly, when you float the drum air is trapped inside. When you move the drum down in the water the trapped air becomes compressed and it stretches and tightens the drum skin. A tight drum skin has a higher pitch than a loose one. This effect is much more obvious with the drum than the canister, because the canister isn’t very stretchable.
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