Music education and play-based learning

Image provided by author, Amy Rothe.

Australian early learning settings follow a play-based pedagogy, in line with the emphasis placed on play in the national frameworks. Music is not a core part of this pedagogy, perhaps because of the perception that music education is about rote instruction, practising scales and reading notation—compared to play-based learning, which is free and child-led.  

But can these two educational approaches be combined? Can music education be play-based, and what might this kind of learning offer to young children? 

How is music education currently being delivered? 

Music education in the early years is often something services pay external educators to provide. The classes offered by external educators are normally based on specialist music approaches such as Dalcroze Eurhythmics, Orff Schulwerk or Kodály (Suthers, 2008) and focus on educator-led intentional teaching.  

Music education has thus evolved as a separate business. This business model has turned early childhood music into a product (Young, 2018)—and I agree, from personal experience, as I was one of these external providers who made a business out of visiting early learning services and preschools to deliver activity-based, timed music classes. This has perpetuated the myth that music education requires extra music-specific learning by the educator. It is no wonder then that educators often feel a level of uncertainty and insecurity around leading early childhood music education (Nyland et al., 2015). 

So, how might we, as educators, move towards including music internally in our programs? Perhaps by focusing on our strengths in providing play-based learning. 

What do we know about play and learning through play? 

Play is a fun activity done with friends or by using toys or the imagination. It is a way for individuals to engage with the world around them. It is a term known to everyone but tricky to define in words. Adults often define play as the opposite of work.  

In early earning settings, we tend to look at almost everything a child does between care moments as play. We know that play is a step forward in children’s development (Piaget, 2013). This is why our frameworks and standards stress on the importance of play-based learning. When children play, they organise and make sense of their social worlds as they engage actively with people, objects and representations. Most of children’s learning takes place when they engage in play and we, as educators, have a vital role in supporting children’s learning through play. We already create experiences that stimulate play and encourage everything from STEM learning to social development, so why not music?  

How might we combine music and play? 

Even though research into play-based music education is in its infancy, we know that:  

  • play-based learning is vital in early childhood—that is why we use it here in Australia  
  • music is beneficial for young minds and music education supports a range of developmental and learning outcomes in early childhood (Barrett et al., 2018)  
  • musical play gives children the opportunity to be creative with music and explore music in their own time (Acker & Nyland, 2020; Berger & Cooper, 2003; Littleton, 1998). 

There are many ways to incorporate music in play-based programs, similar to other learning areas. For example, setting up a music play corner to support children’s musical play, either inside or outside, can help in making music a part of children’s daily lives. If this corner is inside, choose softer instruments so the noise level in the room does not get overwhelming; ukuleles, xylophones, mini pianos and quieter shakers are great for this. For an outdoor music corner, think big! Large drums can be a hit. Old kits can be purchased from op-shops or recycling centres, making them an economical option.  

Once the musical environment is set up, focus on modelling. Play with the instruments and make music—any music—with them. Bang out a fun rhythm on the drums or make up a musical pattern on the xylophone. When children follow, let them explore music independently without interrupting them or giving well-meaning corrections, as this can lead to children stopping their musical play and exploration (Bond, 2015).  

Our modelling on the musical instruments may not teach the children to play Mozart, but what it will do is show them how to respect the instruments and make sounds on them. It will also teach them about the magic of play as a tool for learning and the joy playing music brings. 

Let me know in the comments section how you incorporate music into play at your early childhood service. 


  • Acker, A., & Nyland, B. (2020). Introduction. In A. Acker & B. Nyland (eds.), Adult perspectives on children and music in early childhood (pp. 1–22). Springer International Publishing. 
  • Barrett, M. S., Flynn, L. M., & Welch, G. F. (2018). Music value and participation: An Australian case study of music provision and support in early childhood education. Research Studies in Music Education, 40(2), 226–243.  
  • Berger, A. A., & Cooper, S. (2003). Musical play: A case study of preschool children and parents. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51(2), 151–165. 
  • Bond, V. L. (2015). Sounds to share: The state of music education in three Reggio Emilia-inspired North American preschools. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(4), 462–484. 
  • Littleton, D. (1998). Music Learning and Child’s Play. General Music Today, 12(1), 8–15. 
  • Nyland, B., Acker, A., Ferris, J., & Deans, J. (2015). Musical childhoods: Explorations in the pre-school years. Taylor & Francis Group. 
  • Piaget, J. (2013). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood (Vol. 87). Routledge. 
  • Suthers, L. (2008). Early childhood music education in Australia: A snapshot. Arts Education Policy Review, 109(3), 55–64. 
  • Young, S. (2018). Critical new perspectives in early childhood music: Young children engaging and learning through music. ProQuest Ebook Central 


ECA Recommends

Music, Moving and Learning in Early Childhood
By Paula Melville-Clark

Music, Moving & Learning in Early Childhood looks at the fundamental theory and practice behind guiding the musical development of children ages 3 – 5 years. Written in simple terms, the book is ideally suited to early childhood teachers, students and parents. It contains information on many areas relating to music and movement, lesson plans for a years teaching and over 60 original songs and chants with CD. Purchase on the ECA Shop.





Amy Rothe

Amy Rothe is an early childhood teacher and musician. She started her career in classical music but quickly transferred to music education. Amy taught early childhood music for many years across the ACT and surrounding regional NSW. In 2019, she gained her graduate diploma in early childhood teaching. Amy has a range of experience in early childhood education as a teacher, educational leader and curriculum developer and strongly advocates for music in early childhood education.

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