Musical play: A powerful tool for self-regulation

Written by: Dr Antonia Zachariou | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Musical play can help to teach young children crucial self-regulation skills, research has suggested. Dr Antonia Zachariou explains more and offers some practical ideas based on their findings

As of September 2021, the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) will require early years settings to consider self-regulation. The Early Learning Goal on self-regulation, stipulates that children should start primary school (year 1) able to:

  • Understand their own and others’ feelings and have the ability to regulate behaviour accordingly.
  • Be able to set and work to simple goals and control impulses, for instance by waiting for what they want.

However, what self-regulation is and how primary schools might respond to this and build on it is not clear.

New evidence to support teachers

Our research (Zachariou & Whitebread, 2015, 2017) alongside that of others in our field, can help primary schools to build on this with children in key stage 1. The evidence we have gathered shows that musical play can be a powerful tool to help children build these skills.

The children in our research, who were all aged between six and eight, engaged in musical play activities during their time at school. The activities took place at primary schools during whole-class music lessons, over five weeks. They involved singing play, hand-clapping games, circle games, instrumental play and movement play, and each lasted approximately 30 minutes.

The tasks contained elements of free play, yet mainly afforded “guided play”. Thus the children’s play was most often sensitively and responsively guided by an adult, within a context meaningful for the children.

The children’s musical play was recorded on video and the researchers later analysed the recordings in detail. We identified more than 15,000 short episodes of self-regulation behaviours which took place during the musical play activities.

During musical play, all children engaged in various self-regulation behaviours. Some of the most predominant included checking their efforts, checking whether they were on track and self-correcting when they made a mistake – this is known as cognitive monitoring. For example, during a hand-clapping game, a child who is checking whether herself and her peer are doing the correct movements, by carefully focusing on the hand movements, is performing cognitive monitoring.

Importantly, children showed understanding of their own and others’ emotions, and monitored their emotional/motivational reactions. This is known as emotional/motivational monitoring. An example of this would be a child expressing that they do not want to sing or a child pulling a long face at the end of a musical play activity that did not go as planned.

The research project also indicated that musical play offered significantly more opportunities for equally sharing the regulation between group members (socially shared regulation), compared to other instructional activities which usually promote individual self-regulation only.

Imagine, for example, a group of children trying to build a castle. They could split the responsibilities (e.g. one will build the castle, the other will build the bridge) and each be responsible for self-regulating themselves. In musical play, splitting the task is often not possible, and the final outcome of a musical piece or that of a hand-clapping game will depend on whether the children have regulated themselves together in an egalitarian, complementary way.

Lessons for teachers

The finding that musical play activities encourage self-regulation behaviour is particularly significant. Musical play could be easily incorporated in the primary school curriculum as an integral part of a school’s strategy to support children’s development in this area, in line with the EYFSP. Here are some brief examples of musical play activities which were incorporated in the project:

  • Hand-clapping games: The children were encouraged to play hand-clapping games they already knew, in pairs. Another activity engaged the children in learning a rhyme involving hand-clapping, to play with this rhyme and find other ways of hand-clapping in pairs.
  • Instrumental play: The children were encouraged to create music inspired by an image (that had been introduced to them) on their own and then in groups of three.
  • Movement play: The children were encouraged to dance to a musical piece, first on their own and then in groups of three.
  • Singing play: An image was shown to the children, and they were encouraged to think of a phrase (having an image as the incentive) and “say it until a song comes”, first individually and then playing in their groups to create their own songs.
  • Circle games: The children learned a game played in a circle while holding hands. Then they played other games they knew that are played in a circle (in groups).

All activities could be easily introduced in the classroom. An example of this is one of the circle games, where all the children first sat in a circle and were given the challenge of passing a tambourine with an egg shaker in it around the circle without making any noise, while singing a song.

For this activity, the children had to wait for their turn, they constantly checked (monitored) what other children were doing, they had to monitor and control their behaviours, and they maintained very high levels of motivation and focus and resisted distractions for the sake of the game.

Wider implications

Self-regulation is particularly important for young children’s mental health, physical health and learning. So if children develop these skills, which have been proven to be teachable, they are likely to also improve their learning. Interventions targeting self-regulation are particularly valuable for children with low levels of self-regulatory skill at the outset, including those at risk because of academic difficulty, poverty and income inequality.

Before we started, we knew other types of play such as pretend play could support children’s development of self-regulation. Our finding that musical play activities also support this is significant, since musical play is a universal, innate type of play which can easily be built into the daily lives of schools.

We also know from other studies that if children share the regulation in a group (socially shared regulation), they are more likely to have higher performance and learning outcomes during collaborative tasks. For example, in a project by Grau and Whitebread (2012), it was found that children engaging in sharing the regulation in a group were also more likely to focus their group work on fundamental (rather than superficial) aspects of a task.

Musical play provides ample opportunities for children to share the regulation within a group, by playing interdependently: in musical play children depend on each other. Imagine trying to play a hand-clapping game when your partner does not make the right moves!

So musical play can provide a valuable foundation on which these important, collaborative problem-solving and socially shared regulation abilities can be built.

  • Dr Antonia Zachariou is a senior lecturer in early childhood studies in the School of Education at the University of Roehampton. She teaches on the BA and MA Early Childhood Studies programmes and supervises PhD students.

Further information & reading

  • Grau & Whitebread: Self and social regulation of learning during collaborative activities in the classroom: The interplay of individual and group cognition. Learning and Instruction (22, 6), 2012:
  • Zachariou & Whitebread: A new context affording for regulation: The case of musical play. International Journal of Educational Psychology 6, 3) 2017:
  • Zachariou & Whitebread: Musical play and self-regulation: Does musical play allow for the emergence of self-regulatory behaviours? International Journal of Play (4, 2), 2015:

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