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A Mini Moment: The Hum and Buzz of Play

Greg Bottrill, author of “Can I Go Play Now?”, explores humming and its place in the World of Sound, encouraging children to play with language and create with music. Never underestimate the power of a good old hum!

learning to hum to music

Growing up, I used to spend quite a lot of time in the company of my grandparents. When I look back, I realise that it taught me so many subtle lessons about life and how to live, especially when spent with my Gransie, who was just the loveliest of people. It’s strange how she still stays with me, even though she passed away many years ago. It was she who showed my young heart the joy of being kind, of poetry and of delighting in the little things.

Her husband, my Grandad, was the complete opposite, however. He was irritable, quick to anger and someone who it felt good to give a wide berth to. In his company, I would often be on tenterhooks, especially when he was settled in his favourite chair in the lounge watching Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon. Heaven help you if you made even the slightest noise. Yet in spite of this, he still left me with a very powerful and magical memory.

Whenever my family stayed over at my grandparents’ house, my Grandad would get up early to cook breakfast for us - the smell of bacon, the sound of fat popping in the pan, the clatter of plates and the chink of cutlery emanating from the kitchen as this man, who was normally so gruff and unapproachable, seemed to soften and he momentarily stepped into the same caring world as Gransie.

It was the one time that I’d come down my grandparents’ stairs with joy rather than with trepidation because I knew that when I walked into the kitchen, my Grandad, all thick-set arms and sleeves rolled up, would be beaming with pride in amongst the piles of toast, the perfectly fried eggs, the mountains of bacon and the big pot of tea under its crocheted cosy. I wanted my Grandad to always be making breakfast, because it felt like it was the only time he was as warm as the toast he made for us.

There was something else though that was the real magic. My Grandad, while he prepped and cooked and set the table, would whistle and hum to himself. As I lay in bed, I could hear him downstairs humming little snatches of show tunes and sonatas, a soundtrack to his happiness as though he was calling me to come and join him, as if each hummed tune was a very part of the breakfast being prepared for me. I’d often find myself humming Peter and the Wolf later in the day as though my Grandad had passed it on to me.

And it’s this magic of ‘humming to yourself’ that can be sprinkled over our practice. Not as a ‘carpet time’ or as a ‘thing’, but rather as an incidental layer over our day, almost barely noticeable, but there nonetheless, because humming is a potentially amazing thing to do around young children:

It makes you feel good – humming can ease tension and reduce stress. It’s like a mini moment of well-being that can be ‘pass-the-parcel’ed’ on to your children. A little hum of a nursery rhyme not only soothes, but it does of course hint at the magic of story without saying a word.

Little cute adorable little blond boy in a striped bodykit sitting with pursed lips behind bars white cot
Humming through a fence

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As we chat and play with children, a brief hum not only reveals our contentment, it also acts as an unspoken form of rhythmic communication. Humming alongside children can act as a bridge between us. It’s amazing how quickly children will pick up a hummed refrain for themselves, just as I did back in 1978.

It shows children how to play with language – as we hum, we can create or adapt tunes, we can hum part of a tune and children often complete it, we can put in wrong notes and children will frequently spot them and correct them. We can even go one further using the draw of humming to throw in letter sounds or vocabulary – try it! Hum the opening bars of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and at the end of the second line replace the last note with a word or letter sound…

It can subtly show children the joy of Listening Carefully. For me, apart from its simple joy, this is the real beauty of humming: it pulls children’s notice to the World of Sounds, all the while doing it without ‘teaching’.

It’s this World of Sounds that I guess my Grandad opened up for me all those years ago, and I’d like to think that his humming and its joy can echo into 2021 too. I’m off to hum Peter and The Wolf. I wonder what you’ll hum today?

Why not create a Mini Moment action plan to explore the power of humming? As a team, perhaps choose a nursery rhyme to incidentally hum the opening bars to as you go about your day with children. Hum the same one across the week and see what you notice…

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