The Power of Music in Early Childhood Development

Kim Cunningham, MS OTR, has been an early childhood occupational therapist for more than 20 years. Realizing the need to make occupational therapy fun and easy for parents, Cunningham developed Hands on Fun, a program that provides resources, tools, and activities geared toward the healthy development of kids.

ABILITY Magazine’s Lia Martirosyan spoke with Cunningham remotely about her clinical work and what motivated her to develop Hands on Fun. They also discussed their mutual love of music and how Cunningham incorporates music in educational settings and recognizes the profound impact that music can have on children’s growth and well-being.

Kim Cunningham at table with young girl playing with blocks

Martirosyan: How are you feeling? Are you feeling better?

Cunningham: Yeah, slowly but surely. It’s just the back-to-school cooties.

Martirosyan: Oh, it wasn’t COVID.

Cunningham: Yeah, it was. But that’s part of being in a school. Everybody’s probably testing positive again because it’s just the way it is.

Martirosyan: There’s a lot going on now with all this stuff that’s gently passing through everyone.

Cunningham: A lot of my school is K through 5. For a lot of these kids, this is their first experience at school. They’re not used to it; their systems are not built up.

Martirosyan: You teach a class, like you have your own?

Cunningham: Yeah, I have a little treatment room.

Martirosyan: Okay. Is it eight to three? Is it that kind?

Cunningham: Yeah.

Martirosyan: Do you have an entire syllabus?

Cunningham: Oh, yeah. Right. So, all of that. And then—Non-stop.

Martirosyan: And you rely heavily on music, right? Or is it spread out with other subjects or how do you….

Cunningham: It depends on who’s coming in the room, how much I can put on and how much they’ll tolerate. But they seem to like it. They want something to hum along to. It gives them a rhythm of some sort. I enjoy it.

Martirosyan: Nice. Can you set up a morning for us? A student walks in and…

Cunningham: Okay, a student will walk into the room. Now, since we’re in the age of COVID, we have to have the kids wash their hands or sanitize. Luckily, the space that we’re in right now has a sink, so I can do some ADL (Activities of Daily Living) stuff. But typically, what I’ll do is I’ll set the activities up in the room. They’re organized by color so that kids know it’s a visual schedule for them. Also with the music, it gives an underlying tone of calmness.

Martirosyan: You have music playing at this time?

Cunningham: It depends on who’s coming in the room, how much I can put on and how much they’ll tolerate, but they seem to like it. They want something to hum along to. It gives them a rhythm of some sort. I enjoy it.

Martirosyan: What is the choice or do you change it up?

Cunningham: I change it up. I do. With the older kids, it’s easy. I want them to pick a little bit, depending on what their mood is. That helps as well. But with the other kids –

Martirosyan: What do they typically lean towards?

Cunningham: Anything that’s new, like anything. Today, they didn’t even ask me. I think today, because we were doing fine motor stuff, they didn’t really say anything to me. But you name it, they’ll ask.

Martirosyan: Do you find yourself going, “What? What is that?”

Cunningham: Yes! (laughs) Because you know what it is? It’s those movies now; they use the songs from the ’70s and the ’80s, and I’m like did you just sing a— It’s funny because I’m like, Oh, my God, you know that! Then I get excited.

(both laugh)

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Martirosyan: (Laughs) That’s funny. I’m very much into music myself —when I catch the melodies that are pretty identical—It is the melody. — and I’m thinking, “What is— Wait, what?” There’s a lot of sampling.

Cunningham: Yeah.

Martirosyan: Can you share a little bit of your background, how it all started?

Cunningham: I got my bachelor’s from Arizona State University, and my family is in New York. So, I came back to the state of New York. I was contemplating what my next move was to get my master’s degree. As much as I wanted to go to medical school, I didn’t have the scores to get in and whatnot or be able to maintain it. I decided that I was going to choose between OT (occupational therapy) and PT (physical therapy). Then I was thinking also, “Oh, I’ll just move to California, get my masters.”, and my family was like, “No, you’re not going anywhere. You’re going to stay right here, and we’re going to see you finish your masters.”

That’s what ended up happening. I had to do my masters here—not a bad thing. Then my first job out of school was in pediatrics, and it was in what they call a center-based program. So, it was a lot of swings and adaptive equipment. They didn’t use music at the time, but it was very sensory-ish. Because of that, I got more training in auditory music stuff and therapeutic listening and sensory integration and it just helped me become a better therapist.

Then the next thing that happened was as I got older, I did my yoga training. And that’s the next part that I saw all of the chanting and the breathing, how that brought a sense of awareness and calmness via music. That was very helpful.

Martirosyan: Oh, wonderful. Yeah, so, feeling it yourself helped you with the kids?

Cunningham: Exactly, and they’re very receptive to it, so that’s helpful too, as long as they can be able to move as well.

Martirosyan: Because there’s an emphasis on classical music being a strong base music-wise—If you’re trying to help kids focus with learning and all this, do you agree with that? Or do you feel either way about it?

Cunningham: Yeah, I think it does help for some kids and then, for other kids, I think it depends on the pitch and how it, I think, vibrates in a room. I think that that could play a hand because there are some classrooms I go into, and they’ll have the white noise machines. And then they’ll have music in the background, and I’m like yeah, you got to just pick one. There are classrooms that you go into and hear classical, and then there’s other ones that you can go in and you’ll hear pop tunes not in classical, but in a more flute or horn range, which is nice.

Martirosyan: Do you have nap time there?

Cunningham: No, we don’t.

Martirosyan: Do you have an opinion on whether or not it’s beneficial when you’re going into a nap or when you’re going to bed at night, for your child, to play music?

Cunningham: Absolutely–and I don’t know exactly which wavelength it is, if it’s an alpha or a beta, because I remember in the NICU, when I did my rotation, they had a lot of sounds, a lot of different sounds for the babies. Some of them were like the heartbeat, you know the “boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.” and some of them were echoing sounds. So, I always think of that before bed. You have to have something soothing, something calming. I always think of that with children. That those sounds—again, I apologize. I don’t know exactly which one it’s called the out for the beta—but it definitely does make a difference. Even when I do it myself, I put my headphones on and I just listen to something that’s soothing. You get a better sleep range because your brain is ready for it.

Martirosyan: Is it the whole time you’re sleeping or just going to sleep?

Cunningham: Well, I must say there are times when I wake up with the phone on my face because I fall asleep holding it or I’m listening to it and I’ll wake up and I’m like…

Martirosyan: Why is it so dark?

(laughing)

Cunningham: Yes, I’ll jolt myself.

Martirosyan: Don’t you feel it when it falls on your face?

Cunningham: No, at this point now I don’t.

Martirosyan: That’s great.

Cunningham: Yeah, and I have one of those Kindles that can play the music as well. It’ll be like, I’ll wake up, or I’ll just feel the Kindle –it’s not a book, but it feels like a book—on my face.

(laughs)

Martirosyan: That’s funny. That’s also how you know how tired you are.

Cunningham: Yeah, exactly.

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Martirosyan: When did you start your program? When did it all come together for you?

Cunningham: Because parents were always asking, “What else can I do? You send this home. How did you get the child to do this? Or What can I do to help?” I had all this thinking, “What is it that I’m doing that I can have parents do that they can carry over?” When I started to map it out, that’s when it all came together.

But then I had to put a visual to it as well. Parents could read something, but sometimes you have to hear it and see it. I ended up having to videotape some of my sessions so that parents could see how to work on fine motor and gross motor. That’s the scales. That was my catalyst.

Martirosyan: Have you ever seen or experienced, let’s say, a child is like mid-tantrum or going through an extreme emotional expression and then using music to calm them?

Cunningham: Right now, I think in a preschool, that is more the ideal because that’s what the teachers do. They’ll step in and they’ll rock and they’ll use their intonation to be like, “It’s okay. Take a breath. It’s okay.” Even though you’re wording it, it is rhythmic in some ways. But in the school I am in now, it’s hard to do because the classrooms are big. Right now, there’s up to 25 kids in a classroom. So, if you have a kindergarten class of one child just screaming, screaming, screaming, I think they have to first decide if they should ignore it because it’s the screaming for attention or is it for something else? Then with the kids that are heavy screaming, we’ll put the noise canceling headphones on them, so at least it gives them a little bit of a break from it, the hustle and bustle. Kids are smart. They’re very intuitive. Sometimes they’ll come into the classroom and they’ll grab it themselves and put it right on because they know it’s overwhelming.

Martirosyan: Sure.

Cunningham: Because some of the kids, the teachers start out with the “Good morning!” like the big “Good Morning” song, and some of the kids just can’t. That’s why we always have them there just so it’s not too much.

Martirosyan: I love that. I love being in tune with their responses to certain personalities.

Cunningham: Yes. You might find this too; I have to sometimes modulate how I say things because my tone is everything.

Martirosyan: My baby is eight months and she –

Cunningham: That’s so yummy.

Martirosyan: Yeah, I can actually hear her. My mom is giving her her first nap and I can hear her. Because I’m usually with her,  she’s not used to it. I can hear her kind of fussy, but my point was when people have come to meet her, there’s quite a few people that aggressively approach her with these loud—because they’re excited and they’re happy. I get that, but also, she’s very sensitive to sound and she’s very sensitive to their physicalness as they’re producing that sound. She doesn’t react very well.

Kim Cunningham on the floor working with young boy

Cunningham: Also, she’s used to being in the womb, you know? Where everything is nice, and now she’s still in that transition period.

Martirosyan: I myself, I’m pretty calm. I’m a very subdued personality. I don’t like craziness either. I mean, there’s a time and place for everything, but I think she’s used to that. But on the other hand, I’ll ask her, (cheerfully) “What do you want to play today?” and then I’ll just play different music. So, it’s not like she’s not used to different sounds. There’s usually piano playing at my house. It’s really fascinating to see how their personalities respond to certain music and sounds and, I mean, people’s personalities on one side, the music and the sounds on the other.

Cunningham: Because that’s a constant. The songs pretty much don’t change. You can just adjust the volume, but higher or lower. But the sound, the melody is always the same.

Martirosyan: Don’t they see the four chords?

Cunningham: Yes.

Martirosyan: Always the same.

Cunningham: Now, do you play the piano?

Martirosyan: I used to, but I actually sing classical notes.

Cunningham: Oh, lovely.

Martirosyan: Yeah, but my mom plays piano and she doesn’t have that much time anymore, but she taught us and she was a pianist. We had this mega choir, maybe 100 kids. Now she’s a nursing professor, but music was her thing.

Cunningham: Was her passion? Oh, that’s lovely. Well, it’s great she was able to pass that down to you all.

Martirosyan: Yeah, it was really nice. She taught a lot of people.

Cunningham: I still have one thing that stuck with me when I was a child that my parents sent me to out of school. Music was part of the program. When you got to second grade, that’s when you got to be able to play the guitar, it was like a big thing, second grade. I remember the second grade and I remember getting my guitar. This is the best thing ever. Then–I forget, but… I don’t even think it was a holiday or whatever it was–but because I played the rental one all the time, I was constantly strumming around with it, and I remember one day my dad came home. To me he looked like Paul McCartney with like a guitar case. He gave me my first guitar, and I still have it.

Almost 50 years later and I still have it. And I have taken it to different shops to get the strings adjusted, but I was able to–during COVID–to show students because I was home. and they could talk. People kept saying, “Bring it in.” and I’m like, “No, I can’t do it because it’s just my special thing. I can’t. Nope, nope, no, no, no.”.

Martirosyan: You don’t want to move it from its place.

Cunningham: Yes, exactly. The way I learned music was through the chords and your tactile feel of strumming and knowing the finger placement and just practicing, but it’s different now. We have a music teacher. She hasn’t started yet, but the music teachers in the past, they teach it differently, like how to–It’s not all just the tactic thing, It’s listening to it. That school of learning, I don’t know what happened to it, but I can see sheet music of religious songs. I’m like, A…C… (laughs) I can still do it.

Martirosyan: Are you fluent in any instruments or just basic enough?

Cunningham: No, just that guitar. That’s it. I did do a little bit of piano, but that wasn’t my thing. I loved my guitar.

Martirosyan: Do you have a favorite genre of music? If you were to pick.

Cunningham: So many. Just like anything else.

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Martirosyan: What do you lean towards when you’re just in a nice mood and just want to relax? What is it that you’ll be playing?

Cunningham: I would say probably like the ’70s music.

Martirosyan: What music?

Cunningham: The ’70s. Anything from the ’70s, whether it’s like funk or the elevator music or that–

Martirosyan: (sings instrumental from the song The Girl From Ipanema) Ipanema!

(both laugh)

Cunningham: Yes, all of that stuff, yeah, or disco just to make you happy. That is helpful too.

Martirosyan: Do you find when you’re trying to get children to learn or remember things, that there’s memory attached to that music that’s playing at that time too, is that what you focus on?

Cunningham: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Because I think now with children, I think having the routine and their sense of trust with COVID and everything that they could have something, the comfort of it I think helps.

Martirosyan: Do you think they would—or even maybe you do this—is when it’s time to clean you play certain music.

Cunningham: Absolutely, yeah. I tend to do mostly the cleanup song. I don’t clap sometimes.

Martirosyan: Constantly in need of cleaning.

(laughs)

Cunningham: I do ad lib it a little bit. I’ll change it, the tone, for the older kids because I’ll add it to more of a beatbox theme.

Martirosyan: Oh, a little rhythm.

Cunningham: Yeah, a little bit of something.

Martirosyan: Actually, just as you were speaking, I remember every once in a while in fifth grade, Mrs. Stevens, when we would pass out papers on Friday, she would play The Monkees on her record player.

Both sing: “Hey, hey we’re the Monkeys and people say we monkey around…” (laughter)

Martirosyan: That was fun for me. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed doing some mundane passing out papers activity.

Cunningham: (laughs) Absolutely.

Martirosyan: I wonder if anyone else from that class, if it stuck with them.

Cunningham: It might have. One nice thing with this whole social media thing is that you can, if you’re in that realm of like the class of ‘77 at St. Margaret’s or whatever school, they might have a little link you could type in and say, “Oh, who remembers this?” You might get a response. But I’m sure, I’m sure.

kim small boy


Martirosyan: Is your family musical?

Cunningham: I think they liked music. I think because my grandparents were Irish and they came through Ellis Island, my parents were inundated with always having Irish folk music on, where they say, ‘tortured’ with the Irish dancing.

Martirosyan: The bagpipe.

Cunningham: Yeah, everything, so when they were raising us, I think they were like, “We’re not going to torture them with the step dancing and the Irish music”, but they tortured us with their own kind of –

Martirosyan: That’s good. That musical torture is nice.

Cunningham: Musical torture is good. It’s very good.

Martirosyan: I have this bouncer for my daughter, and it’s like a harness and she’s bouncing up and down, and anytime we would put her in that, she would do like an Irish gig.

Cunningham: That’s so sweet.

Martirosyan: I would play the Irish music. It was the cutest thing ever. When you were saying that, I remembered it. It looked exactly like she knew what was happening.

Cunningham: One thing I do try to do with the children is I try to get a toy that somewhat resembles an activity of daily life, whether it’s a washing machine, a dishwasher, a microwave. This week, I wish I had brought it down with me. It’s a griddle. It’s very small. Usually, all the pieces are very small, but they’re lovely because they have all the pieces like the bacon, the eggs, the steak, the tomatoes, the spatula, and they all–whatever this company is, I can’t remember the name of it—but they all have a battery—it’s very old-school. When you turn the button, all these kids know that one color that I have is black and I always have the toy that makes the sounds on black and they’re all like, “What’s in black this week?” This week it’s the griddle. You have to see them all pressing down the eggs to make the sizzle, and you could hear it and it’s just lovely. But I also tried to, like last week it was the sink. It’s like a little small sink that it has dishes and it has a water thing. It does make a sound, but the water doesn’t come out, but it makes the sound of the trickling water. Then I have another—it just rotates—that is a microwave and has little pretend dinners or chicken and they open and shut it. They press the buttons and it makes the sound. Then I have a dishwasher; and then I have a dryer, too. But it’s amazing that those sounds, they realize, “Oh, it’s done! Okay, it’s done. I’ll take it out.”

Martirosyan: With those activities, you’re teaching them what the sounds are like, or is it more of a focusing…

Cunningham: I think it’s both. I really do. I think they’re trying to make it relatable, but also purposeful. With the griddle on today, they’ll say, “Oh, Ms. Cunningham, what do you want?” I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll take eggs, bacon, and a waffle.” Then they’ll grill it, they’ll do it and then they’ll put it on the plate. And I’ll say, “Okay, remember, I want eggs, bacon, and a waffle” and they’ll look at it and I’ll say, “Oh!” and they’ll go back. It’s sweet.

Martirosyan: That’s cute. That’s really sweet. So, Hands On, is that the name of the school or is –

Cunningham: It’s the name of the program. What it is, there’s digital downloads that help parents make sure that their child’s fine motor and gross motor skills are developmentally intact.

Martirosyan: Their what skills? I’m sorry, I didn’t get it.

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Cunningham: Their fine motor and gross motor. What I did was I did the first year of life, making sure they’re hitting all the developmental milestones. The same thing for when they’re one, when they’re two, and when they’re three. Because when a child goes to school—I know you can’t imagine it, but one day your daughter is going to be in preschool. And they’re going to be like, “Oh, does she know how to do this? Or does she know how to do that? Does she know the age? Does she know the address?”

It’s all this curriculum stuff, but I found that if children don’t have the muscular strength and the bodies, they’re not going to know how to hold the pencil or write or be able to tie their shoes. So, that’s where all this came from. This just being brainstorming, thinking, “what’s missing?” In the school districts now, there’s a lot of curriculum for writing, math, but there’s no curriculum for motor skills. That’s where it came from. I had big dreams of getting also a speech and language curriculum too.

Martirosyan: Your program is inclusive, right? You have a variety of skills that you’re working on?

Cunningham: Yes. The good thing is that parents can also play catch-up. If they don’t feel that their child is holding something or head tilting or sitting or rolling or crawling, it can be used just to get the exposure of how to get your child to do rolling or crawling. It’s preventative as well.

Martirosyan: That’s wonderful. I was talking to my friend, prior to our connecting, and she has two children with autism.  She’s wondering if you know of anybody out in California that is doing what you are doing?

Cunningham: No. When I did my sensory training years and years ago—like 20 years ago—the big center was in California. It was in Torrance, California. The woman who came up with the sensory integration was from California. And I think she was at USC, or she was at UCLA.

Martirosyan: What’s the name of the center?

Cunningham: Google, Sensory Integration International, and the woman’s name who started the whole study with the autism and OT and sensory integration was—she’s passed—her name was Dr. Jean Ayres. If you’ve done your training under the Jean Ayres protocol, they give you opportunity to be in the group to be with the therapists that are in New York or the therapists that are in California, so there is a network there, someone might be able to do that. That would be the best way to find speech therapists or OTs that have that training.

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