How to Teach Rhythm in Kindergarten: Routines, Resources, and Mini Lessons
Updated: May 15
Teaching kindergarten music is so much fun!
The kids are curious and truly excited about learning. I love planning activities for them. And there’s so much you can do with foundational skills that goes beyond preparing them for higher level musicianship.
We’re talking pairing skill practice and content knowledge with creativity and higher order thinking skills- things that will benefit kids as they get older no matter what they choose to study! And here, we’ll do this in the context of teaching beginning rhythm skills.
In this post, we’re focusing on practicing one- and two-sound rhythms and preparing kindergarten students for quarter notes and eighth notes (ta and ti-ti/ du and du-de).
We’ll start with steady beat activities then move to whole group instruction, small group practice, and finally a meaningful wrap up to bring home what your kindergarten musicians learned. I’ll share specific examples, sample dialogue between you and your students as you move through literacy steps, and things you can use in your classroom- including a free worksheet to use with your students!
Now, if you are starting from square one- I'm talking you're a new teacher or a non-traditional teacher with no curriculum- you would benefit from this free 12-page guide.
It outlines a clear and accessible sequence jam-packed with lessons, activities, and resources, including lots of links to further your learning. Click here to get your free copy!
P.S. Did you know I have a YouTube channel where I do music teacher toolbox chats about topics like this? If you're not connected with me there, make sure you subscribe to learn more meaningful elementary music strategies!
I’m so excited to share these approaches with you! I know they’ll help your students become stronger musicians while having fun and owning their learning. The key here will be age-appropriate strategies that reach students at their levels.
The particular lesson that I’ll referencing later is a recent one I did for Lunar New Year where we focused on some elements of Chinese culture. We read The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine, listened to Chinese music, and did a dragon dance using MrsFMusic’s tablecloth idea (she’s on Instagram).
We also did a big rhythm component based on the twelve animals of Chinese zodiac.
And that’s where back up for just a second (but I’ll get back to the zodiac animals towards the end of the post!).
Because while I used animals, these strategies for preparing kindergartners for ta and ti-ti can work with virtually ANY theme- like food, seasons, or colors. Which means you can do it anytime during the year, whenever is best for your students.
So where do I start?
The first step in prepping kinders for one- and two-sound rhythms is practicing steady beat. Ideally, this is done every class period and uses a variety of music.
Some of my favorites:
It Takes Two - Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston
March of the Toreadors - Georges Bizet
9 to 5 - Dolly Parton
Twistin' the Night Away - Sam Cooke
Stars and Stripes Forever - John Philip Sousa
Masquerade Suite: Gallop - Aram Khachaturian
Rockin' Robin - Bobby Day
8 Slavonic Dances, Op. 46 No 7 in C Minor - Antonín Dvořák
Radetzky March - Johann Strauss I
September - Earth, Wind & Fire
I'm a Believer - The Monkees
Don't Go Breakin' My Heart - Elton John and Kiki Dee
For example, when my students walk into the room every day, they walk around the rug and move to the music until I meet them and initiate the first activity: keeping the heartbeat of the music. We feel the beat on our legs, shoulders, and head. We march, clap, and tip toe.
I’ll be honest- many of my kids aren’t there yet. So I’m diversifying our practice. Sometimes we use simple instruments, like rhythm sticks, where they can really feel and hear that heartbeat. Or I will use sticks and they will match me by clapping. A visual and kinesthetic element combined is going to help students who need either or both to really connect with that beat.
Another strategy we’ve done is tapping heat cutouts on the board or the hearts I draw in under song lyrics.
I model it- a LOT- with a song, and then I ask for a student Heartbeat Director. This is great because it’s individual, letting you see and hear which kids need further practice. (Those kids are the ones you might want to sit near more often, for example, so they have you right there to guide them.)
Here’s the thing though- kids don’t need to be beat experts before moving into rhythm. Of course steadiness is important. But sometimes taking the next step can help connect the dots.
So after you’ve done lots of beat practice (tip: make it a routine that students do every day, even if you’re planning to have them practice during your lesson later), you can move onto the next step in rhythm prep…
Sound before sight
Or, learning by ear. This can also begin months before any kind of written or visual components.
Let’s say you established a beat routine in September that continues into October. During the fall, you can begin to introduce rhythm by having students echo rhythms with voices and/or instruments. I use the seasons and holidays as the basis for our rhythms, so “acorn” and “leaf” are two of my fall rhythm words, as are "pumpkin" and "pie."
So are kids just echoing patterns, like “Pie, pie, pumpkin, pie”?
For a while, yes! It builds their sense of beat and steadiness. Echoing is how a lot of us learn all kinds of things- don’t shy away from it. You could…
accompany on a percussion instrument (cajon, conga, djembe)
do whole group echoing or ask for soloists
echo the words out loud
echo the sound only while they say the words in their heads
Let the patterns settle in their brains. At this point, you’re building that steadiness. You’re getting them used to what four beats feel like. They’re learning these patterns by ear, which means in a few months, they could even improvise rhythms by drawing from the bank they’ve been building in their heads. (After a while, kids might even start doing this naturally without you asking them to invent a rhythm!)
So far this is all aural. So let’s talk visuals.
Of course, eventually students’ goal is reading rhythms independently. And that has a visual element. As your students become great echoers and clappers, you’re doing to want to add visuals to your rhythm practice. So instead of just saying the words, you are either projecting graphics of the words or pointing to pictures on a board, like the examples below.
You need a one-syllable word and a two-syllable word, so just about anything could work, like...
"Acorn" and "leaf"
"Pie” and “pumpkin”
“Corn” and “scarecrow”
“Squash” and “green beans”…
Usually I print graphics of the theme we’re using and either tape them to my board or use magnets. That way I can manipulate them quickly to match the direction students take.
Now as you have student echo, their eyes are being trained to follow what they’re reading. But you will have to remind them where their eyes should be- a lot. Students will want to look at you. So stand behind them, use a pointer and model the process, or have a student use the pointer.
But visuals will help all your learners become better readers! As long as you’re not selling the materials you’re creating or profiting in any way, you can use images from the web for materials you use for PERSONAL classroom use.
Once you’ve incorporated visuals on the regular, your kids might be ready for the next step. This might be before, say, winter or January. If you think they are, go for it! (If not, just keep making these things part of your routines and move on later.)
Because next is…
Asking students to think critically
Let’s take the pumpkin pie example, because it’s a great springboard into this next step.
Here’s what your rhythms might look like:
First, students echo the rhythms with their voices:
“Pie, pie, pumpkin, pie.”
“Pumpkin, pie, pumpkin, pie.”
“Pumpkin, pumpkin, pie, pie.”
“Pie, pumpkin, pie, pie.”
Here's a sample dialogue of how the next portion can go:
Teacher: “Let’s do each one twice! The first time, we’ll use our voices and our hands as we clap. The second time, we’ll say the words in our heads but still use our hands to clap, like this.” [demonstrate]. “Let’s try it!”
“Pie, pie, pumpkin, pie.” [students echo it]
[You clap Ta Ta Ti-ti Ta] [students echo it]
“Could you hear those words in your head? Let’s try that same one again.”
[Repeat the process]
[Move on to different pumpkin pie rhythms]
Here’s the critical thinking part:
Teacher: “Can you think of another pie name that sounds like this?” [clap twice as if you’re clapping pumpkin]
You might need to guide students to a response like "apple", which also has two sounds. (“Let’s name our favorite pies and see if they match!") "Chocolate" is another one, or "berry."
Be prepared for kids to shout pies like blueberry or coconut or banana, which do NOT have two sounds. Model the way these names sound by clapping and ask if they’re the same as pumpkin or apple.
Like I said above, this can work with words of ANY theme!
You might try Thanksgiving:
I’m naming themes here that would work well in the first half of the year, but you get the idea. Any theme can work!
Okay, you’ve done steady beat practice. Sound before sight. Some initial critical thinking.
Now we’re ready to dive further. It’s time to…
We begin decoding by ear first. That means we’re translating the words into how many sounds we have just by using our ears.
Take the blanket/mug rhythms:
Teacher: “Blanket, mug, blanket, mug.” [students echo]
“Can you repeat that back in your head? How many sounds does ‘blanket’ have? Think first.” [Give them think time- use a visual signal to remind them not to shout things out loud, which can be a tendency.]
"Let’s try it together: Co-coa!" [clap as you say it]. "How many sounds did you hear? Turn and share your answer with someone near you.”
From here, you can ask students to show the answer on their fingers, check their answers by saying and clapping the word again, or flat out asking for someone to tell and show their answer. If I do the latter, I usually follow up by asking who agrees. With young kids, I find that this helps them feel recognized and proud of themselves. They’re thrilled when they get the answer!
Now, you might be thinking that these processes up until now seem slow-going, if not in the moment then over the course of the year. But stick with me! Remember: we’re slowing building that fluency and literacy in age-appropriate ways, chunking each step into an achievable goal.
Essentially, we’re spiraling our teaching. Why spread these steps over all these weeks (or months)? Well, in kindergarten we’re doing a lot more than rhythm and beat. Other experiences, like movement, singing, games, and art are all valuable too. We want room for everything!
Help your students decode by ear over several classes. You can make it part of a routine or focus on it every few classes. When students have the strategy down pat, you can progress to the next step of decoding..
How can students visually show one and two sounds in different words?
I personally use dot notation. It’s just what it sounds like. I draw one or two dots underneath each picture, like in this Valentine's Day example.
We go through the strategy of clapping as we pronounce each word to determine the syllables, and then I draw the dots.
Sometimes I will leave a blank spot with one or two dots underneath and ask which picture goes there, or what other picture could go there? You want to encourage the factual knowledge and the higher level thinking, and all of these do exactly that.
Here’s where everything culminates!
Because I want kids to be able to identify the sounds without me guiding whole group instruction and practice. I need to know how I can help kids who need more instruction, or how to challenge kids who find this very straightforward.
So this year I tried a small group activity with my kindergarteners to get them practicing on their own.
Small group decoding activity
During our Lunar New Year mini unit, I set up work stations at the tables with two plates and Chinese zodiac animal cutouts. On the plates I had drawn one dot and two dots.
The students' job was to sort each animal onto a plate based on how many sounds it has. (We had done a few of them as a class already to prepare, but the rest they did on their own.)
As I circulated, I noticed kids were generally successful. If I didn’t agree with an answer, I asked the students to try the strategy again and show me how they got their answer. Often, they were able to fix it.
And if they weren’t, that’s when I broke down the strategy with them one on one, or in a small group. That’s something I can’t do during most of our music class activities. Which is another reason why something like this activity is so valuable in music class- you get to facilitate and give specific feedback to your students!
Another thing I noticed? Many of my students were quick at this! If they finished, I had them turn over all the pictures and take turns picking them up and sorting them like that. But hey- that’s important information for me, right? Some kids needed a more challenging activity or some kind of extension, like a different themed sorting activity
This is something we music teachers might not account for in music, and it’s hard to do. Sure we differentiate, but often that’s in the way we teach a concept, and not always in the way students show their learning.
At this point in the year, your students are decoding independently... what's the last thing they can do to bring all their skills together?
When students can compose using the skills they've learned, that's the culmination of learning. Why? Because they're understanding, applying, and creating! Each thing they've done has been building to this final application- original work. In kindergarten!
Here is something I use with my kindergarteners.
It's a spring-themed composition worksheet. In part 1, they decode the pictures using one or two dots. (Pictures are: tree, flower, bird or bluebird, bee, raindrop.) In part 2, they draw and decode their own spring rhythms using a combination of the pictures above.
This should be a 10-15 minute activity with frequent reminders about which part they should be working on. A visual timer or countdown might be helpful. I've done this before where students had 15 minutes and didn't make it through part 2. 5 and 6 year olds need frequent check-ins with independent work like this!
When they're done? Share with people at their table. Even better, end class back on the rug or in a circle and have the students share with the class. They can be caller, and the rest of their peers can echo!
Want to try this worksheet with your students?
And honestly? If your first graders are learning stick notation for ta and ti-ti, you could use these as a first assessment with them too.
This also makes for a great bulletin board or hallway display, work for a student portfolio, or material to share at a conference... or with your admins to support your teacher goals.
But hey, if you think your first graders (or kinders) are ready for using stick notation, check out my Secret Rhythm series!
Students decode pictures like the ones above into stick notation using popsicle sticks (although there is an option to simply write the notation on paper or white boards).
Information dump much? 😅
Yeah, there's a lot here.
But it happens over the span of months, not days or weeks. This takes you from fall to spring at least. Take. Your. Time.
You'll be great, and so will your students!
If you have any questions or would like clarification on any of these steps, please reach out to me on Instagram @ADifferentMusician or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.