This was a question I was asked a lot when I was a teacher, and now I’m a parent I still get asked it wherever I go. As a preschool music teacher for fifteen years I know what children need, and I have seen many “fads” come and go in that time.
Firstly, it is important to note that every situation is different. I cannot presume to know your child and your child’s needs when it comes to musical instruments.
Also, every parent has a different need for a musical instrument, and have different expectations and skill levels themselves. A parent’s own experiences and skills will definitely have an effect on the choices that are made for them.
My child wants to play the guitar!
The guitar is a tricky instrument to play, especially for a preschool child. The finger pressure required to actually hold down the string to play notes and chords is really beyond a preschool child. Also the guitar is too large for them to hold comfortably, even a half or quarter size guitar is too big for a four-year-old.
Here are some recommendations, depending on the age of the child:
You want a toy guitar, without strings! A 2-year-old cannot strum or pluck real strings, and if you try to give them a guitar with strings then they will end up breaking them, and it is dangerous for them, as they can get a string lashing back at them. There are plenty of “WigglesGuitars” and other plastics pretend guitars that will be completely safe for them. Try to get one that plays pleasing music or no music at all, as some of the ones that play heavy rock music will not do anything for their musical ear.
One that does not play music at all would be my preference, as this way the child can use their imagination and sing along to music from CD’s and tapes.
This is where you as the parent needs to make a more informed choice. If the child is only just wanting to play around then a toy plastic guitar will be fine still, however, if they are showing more of an interest, then the instrument you need to look for is a ukulele. They need to learn to respect their instrument and learn that it is not a toy like all the others. A Ukulele has real strings, and if they are silly with it then the strings will break, and it could hurt them. If they are sensible with the way they treat it then a Ukulele is completely safe.
A Ukulele is really just a small-sized guitar, but it only has four strings, as opposed to six on the regular guitar. You don’t need to worry too much about tuning, but if you can get someone who knows how to play the guitar to tune it for you, and it will sound better. I usually tune the strings to a major chord – this is not the normal tuning, however, it works for preschoolers and it will sound pleasing to your ears when they strum all the strings together. Children can learn to strum it and pick each string without having to worry about placing their left hand on the strings – they simply hold the neck of the ukulele with the other hand.
You should be able to get a Ukulele for around $20 – you don’t need to spend more than that on it, as there is not any real advantage for a child in having a better one.
A real six-string guitar really is too big for most preschoolers, although I have seen some children play a half or quarter size guitar at 4-5 years old, so nothing is impossible!
This is where you need a real six-string Guitar. You should be able to get a small guitar suitable for your child’s height – but go into the music shop to find out what is available, and make sure that it suits your child’s height.
At this stage you can go for a slightly better one, but make sure it has Nylon strings – Steel strings take too much pressure for the little fingers to push down!
What about the drums?
Once again, safety should always come first, when buying anything like musical instruments, especially for the very young preschooler who hasn’t yet associated any difference between a musical instrument and a toy.
Once again, if your child is younger than two years, then a toy drum is probably the best thing you can get. Try and go for one that is made from durable plastic, which will outlast the biggest drumming sessions!
At this stage, you can go for a few more adventurous percussion instruments. The company “LP” makes an entire range called the “Rhythmix” percussion. These are specially designed for young children, and they even make a tambourine with the jingles all enclosed, so that they are safe for young fingers.
At this sort of age you can think about a more extensive child’s drum set if your child is really showing signs of being interested. They should definitely have a child’s size, as regular size drum sets are way too big for them at these early ages.
How about keyboards or pianos?
The keyboard or the piano is the single best instrument to teach a child from around the age of 3 and a half years old. It develops their musical ear and cognitive functions that are amazingly beneficial to later development. It isn’t however good to learn in the “old school style” of piano lessons – where you go and sit in a room with a teacher and prepare for examinations. There is certainly a place for this type of learning later in life, but at a young age, they should do small group classes and learn in a fun environment.
What is the ultimate best recommendation?
There is a new product which was released in 2019 called Piano Wizard, and this software is built into a product from Fisher-Price called “I Can Play Piano”. This has to be the single best product that you could buy a child if you want to get them started in music, as it lets them start in a really effective way through a computer game interface.
For the young child from 2-5 years “I Can Play Piano” is a perfect way to get started, and they can then graduate to a full Piano Wizard a little later. You will find some links to learn more about the Piano Wizard at the end of the article.
Everyone is different, and there is no reason to believe that because something is right for one child that it will be right for every other child. Whatever you do, make sure that you and your child both enjoy music-making, and enjoy the good times that it can bring.