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Music Therapist offers Free Special Education Resources

Music is a wonderful way to bond with children with special needs and to help them learn new developmental skills. Over the past fourteen years of working as a music therapist with kids with special needs, I have learned many great activities and songs. I would like to share a few simple yet effective activities with you. I also want to share my favorite easy-to-use and easy-to-adapt instruments with you. Whether you are a therapist, teacher, or parent you can add these music-based special education resources to your toolkit.

Simple and Effective Musical Activity

One of my favorite musical activities to do with kids with special needs is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” You can begin by sitting on the floor across from your child. Hold their hands, and sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Sway forward and back or side-to-side while singing. This can be a great exercise for developing core strength. If you want to work on hand and arm strength, have the child hold onto a drumstick with you. You can move this to the right, to the left and up and down. The child will be challenged to hang onto the stick but will be having so much fun that they won’t even realize how hard they are working!

This activity is also great for bonding and social skills development. The singing, eye contact, touch and movement all help to create a connection. You can also involve other kids in this activity and have a circle of kids holding hands and having rocking together. Incorporating humor into activities like this can make them even more fun and motivating. Here are some additional verses to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that can add humor to this song.

Row, row, row your boat gently in the bath,

if you see a tall giraffe, don't forget to laugh. (exaggerated belly laugh)

Row, row, row your boat gently out to sea,

if you see a big blue whale, invite him home to tea...yum (pretend like you are drinking tea)

Row, row, row your boat gently out to sea,

if you see a pretty mermaid, give her a kiss from me! (big smooch)

Rock, rock, rock your boat gently to and fro,

merrily, merrily, merrily, into the water we go. Splash! (fall over into some pillows)

Row, row, row your boat gently down the river,

if you see a polar bear, don't forget to shiver! (exaggerated shivers)

Row, row, row your boat gently to the shore,

if you see a lion there don't forget to roar! (ROAR)

Row, row, row your boat gently down the creek,

if you see a little mouse don't forget to squeak! (squeak and act like a mouse)

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,

if you see a crocodile, don't forget to scream! (scream)

Finally, if you are working on some speech goals, you can pause before certain words, freeze the rocking/swaying motion and only continue once the child has said that work or phrase. i.e. “Row, row, row your __________.”

Great Instruments that are Easy-to-use

One of my favorite kid-friendly instruments is the tambourine. Tambourines come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Here is a picture of my favorite type of tambourine. They are about four inches across.

Notice that this tambourine does not have a “skin” or a “head.” I prefer this style because this can be slipped over a child’s hand like a bracelet for easy playing.

Another way to make the tambourine adaptive is to slip a thick rubber band over it. Once the rubber band is on, a child’s hand can slip between the rubber band and tambourine so that it stays on without them having to grasp it.

You can also slip a tambourine over a child’s shoe or foot. I’ve had lots of success working on motor skills by doing this and singing a fun song about kicking or stomping. Here’s an easy one for you based on “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Every time you sing “stomp, stomp here” or “kick, kick there,” stop and wait for the child to do this action before continuing the song.

Old McDonald had a band, EIEIO,

and in his band he had a tambourine, EIEIO.

With a stomp, stomp here and a stomp, stomp there.

Here a stomp, there a stomp, everywhere a stomp, stomp.

Old McDonald had a band, EIEIO.

Along with tambourines, I also love using rhythm sticks and maracas with my clients. The rhythm sticks I like are about eight inches long and the maracas are about four inches long. These sizes are perfect for little hands. Here are pictures of the ones I like the best.

If your child or student is having difficulty holding on to these instruments, I have a solution for you! To adapt the maracas, take two pieces of electrical tape and a thick rubber band. Cut the rubber band in half and tape one end to the base of the handle and the other end to the top of the handle. You now have a simple strap that you can slip a child’s hand through. For rhythm sticks, do the same thing but tape the rubber band to the top and bottom of each stick. Here’s an easy little tune for the rhythm sticks that is based on “The Wheels on the Bus” song.

The sticks in your hand go tap, tap, tap.

Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.

The sticks in your hand go tap, tap, tap.

All through this song.

Finally, here is a tune for the maracas that is based on “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain.”

She’ll be playing those maracas in this song. (rattle rattle)

She’ll be playing those maracas in this song. (rattle rattle)

She’ll be playing those maracas.

She’ll be playing those maracas.

She’ll be playing those maracas in this song. (rattle rattle)

You can work on different motor skills by singing “She’ll be playing those maracas way up high” or “She’ll be playing those maracas side to side.” There is so much you can do with some simple songs and instruments. Just make sure that you join in the fun and be a role model for your child or student. If you want more free ideas and videos on how to use music in adaptive and therapeutic ways, please visit my website at and sign up for my free newsletter at

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