Parents frequently ask me what kinds of instruments I would recommend for their young children to play at home. Here’s my list, in time for the holidays!
First, a disclaimer:
I’ve chosen instruments that I hope will get years of play in your family, lasting well your child’s toddler years. So I am going to stray beyond just what would be officially certified “child safe” for a child under two.
I’m assuming that we all have good judgment about what constitutes safe play for our child or baby. My recommendations assume that anything that your child is using is in good condition, and that you are supervising to some extent.
That said, I’ve brought my same natural rattles to more than 100 music classes with young children in the past year, and I have used similar items with my own children since babyhood, and one has yet to break open!
Whenever Possible, Choose Natural Materials
Why natural materials? For two reasons.
First, instruments made from natural materials are more inviting to play. They sound better, and they provide a richer experience for the senses. Hold up a handmade, fair trade rattle from Africa next to a mass produced plastic rattle from a factory, and you’ll see there is no comparison, both in terms of sound, and in terms of how it feels to hold the thing.
Second, natural materials are easier on the earth.
Handmade instruments needn’t be expensive, either, especially if you consider your musical instrument collection to be something you’re going to add to over time.
Category 1: Things that Shake
A caxixi is a woven rattle used in West African and also Brazilian music. It makes a beautiful, earthy rattling sound, and it’s also a wonderful, appealing shape that your child will love to explore with hands and mouth. Buy on Amazon.
What I’ve said about natural materials notwithstanding, it is worthwhile to have some shaker eggs on hand, and here I do buy plastic instruments. They’re durable, easy to play, and tactile inviting. These ones sound best to me. Buy on Amazon.
Little ones love ankle bells. What’s not to love? You can put them on all over your body and run around the room! (My two year old loves to do this!) Buy on Amazon.
Things to Strike
Your entire family is sure to enjoy a great big gathering drum like this one. The largest size sounds fantastic, and can be played by around 6 people. However, it’s a little large for small living quarters! At my house, we use this smaller 16” gathering drum, and we love it. Buy on Amazon.
If you want something even smaller, Remo also makes a smaller floor tom, which is very affordable at just $30. Buy on Amazon.
Things that Click and Clack
Rhythm sticks are a lot of fun. You can drum them on the floor, click them together, and even make a neat zipping sound by running the smooth one down the grooved one. Babies also love to suck on the ends. Buy at West Music.
Guiro Crow Sounder
Similar to rhythm sticks, but fun since you strike a resonant grooved piece with a mallet. Buy at West Music.
These castanets also make a loud click – clacking sound, all the more fun because they are shaped like a little mouth that opens and closes. Try them out, and tango the night away! Buy on Amazon.
Things That Zip
This little guiro, shaped like a frog, is as appealing to the eyes as it is to the ears. You make a sound with it by rubbing the striker over the frog’s back. It makes a zipping sound a little like a ribbit. Buy on Amazon.
On a cabasa, you produce sound by sliding rings of beads over a metal surface. It sounds like “shhhh, shhhh, shhhhh.” And it also feels really neat to play it. Little ones love running their fingers over the beads. Buy on Amazon.
Things that Chime
For children about two and up, I recommend a triangle, with its beautiful, angelic tinkle. (The holder is removable, so I would wait to bring this to your child until she’s safe with small things.) They also make wooden holders you can buy to replace the plastic one. Buy on Amazon.
For babies, who can not yet manage a triangle and striker, these finger cymbals offer another way to bring a bell-like sound to your music making. These are another favorite for sucking on, too. Buy on Amazon.
This pentatonic glockenspiel is gorgeous. You’ll admire its beautiful craftsmanship, and an exquisite tone. It is on the pricey side, but to my mind worthwhile. This is one your children will pass on to their children. Buy on Amazon.
Alternatively, there are many less expensive glockenspiels and xylophones out there that will also give your child the satisfying experience of banging out their first melodies. If you have one you love, I’d love to hear about it!
Things to Pluck and Strum
A lot of people choose a toy guitar as their child’s first stringed instrument. As a guitar lover myself, I get it. Guitars hold a special magic for children, probably because this is an instrument they have often seen played.
If you want to get a guitar-like instrument for your child, this banjolele is a great place to start. I’ve not played this in person, but my two year old is getting one for the holidays, so I’ll report back after I try it! Buy on Amazon.
That said, I think that even better than a guitar for most young children is some type of harp. Unlike guitars, harps don’t require fretting to vary the pitch, so your child will be able to make more interesting music right of the bat, without having to learn any skills up front.
My children love their Hape Kinderharp. This instrument would require supervision for a very young child, but most children can handle it on their own starting around age 3. You can pluck, strum, or strike the strings. When you strike them with chopsticks or other light sticks, this instument sounds like a hammered dulcimer! Cool! Buy on Amazon.
Another very special (though expensive) option is a lyre. Lyres have a sound unlike any other – very soothing and soft. Best of all, this one is pentatonic, so everything you play sounds good.
This is an heirloom quality instrument, and to my mind, totally worthwhile. We use ours at night, with my five year old son playing while his little sister dresses for bed. It is also our favorite instrument to make the music for our puppet shows, which we do with the children’s stuffed animals, and some other little fabric puppets I’ve made.
This instrument is one of my go-tos for helping my children calm down, especially in the evening! Buy at Palumba.
Well, that’s my list!
But please remember, your instrument collection is only worthwhile if it is getting played by you and your children! You could have a spice jar filled with rice, and if you play it a lot, that’s more valuable than an expensive, hand carved rattle. So keep looking for ways to bring a live music making into your day, with whatever you’ve got on hand.
Thanks for reading, and I wish you a beautiful holiday season.
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