I don't know about you, but the easy solution when I want to motivate my kids to do anything is SUGAR. Because I don't want them to be unhealthy and equate food with rewards, I am always looking for alternatives to candy to help motivate them to practice.
The main tools a young child needs to practice effectively are the following:
1. Parental support/ involvement (because no child is going practice what you want them to practice unless you're there to help them)
2. An itemized list of tasks to complete (at Upper Beaches Music School, we use practice charts that our teachers fill out weekly)
3. A motivator to accomplish the tasks properly (best if it is visual- and the games below are great starting points)
4. A sense of completion and progress toward a final goal in each practice session (this one is important because your child might not yet understand the ultimate goal of playing really beautifully... that's a long-term goal that can only be taught once they've achieved many daily short-term goals).
Here are three games that I've found to be extremely helpful in both motivating my children to practice and in making sure we accomplish what their teacher has asked each time we practice. The idea is that each time the child practices something properly, they get a bit closer to completing the visual goal.
1. Build something out of LEGO
It doesn't really matter what you build. My daughter usually will bring me a collection of little pieces and we put them together as she practices each item on her practice chart. If you are feeling more creative, you could build towers, trucks, people, etc. The idea is that a new piece is added every time she properly executes the task at hand.
For small tasks, like playing one bar with proper articulation, we'd add a small piece. For larger tasks, like playing through all of Minuet 1 with the correct bowings, we'd add a larger piece, like a tree or a person, or wheels on the car.
2. Draw a picture
My kids got REALLY into this game for a while and I got to hone my sketching skills. They were allowed to choose anything they wanted for me to draw; stuffies, LEGO figurines, trucks, trains, you name it. Again, each time they executed something that was asked of them on their practice chart, I added something to the picture. To make sure this didn't eat up too much practice time, I would draw and colour in really small sections, which means that sometimes our artwork would take the whole week to complete.
We also did a really gratifying series of portraits, which my children LOVED. It was a great way for me to give them something back, since they often feel as though they are working so hard when practicing. If the more detailed pictures took several days to complete, it only amplified their motivation. They were eager to practice longer to complete more of the picture, or to get back into the practice room the next day to see more of it come to life.
If you are looking for a simpler alternative to this game, hangman is a big hit (especially with older children who can read and spell), and stick figures never disappoint. You could also complete colouring pages or word searches.
3. Toy car parking lot
This was very popular with my 3.5 year old child, but my 5- year old son enjoyed versions of it too. We first drew a picture of a parking lot with a few parking spots, and a road leading from off the page to the parking lot. We then parked a few cars outside of the page and drove them into their designated spots for each time he completed something on his practice chart. This is also a very fun game if you happen to have a rug with roads on it. One day we even created an off-road construction site and drove up diggers, dump trucks etc.
Make sure that you set a few ground rules as you go through the items on your practice list:
1. The parent decides what counts as a completed task. If you leave this part up to the child, they will simply rush through their list just to get it done and to achieve their reward. Set the standard ("play line three of Andantino four times with a super-straight bow") and make sure that you stick to it.
2. The parent is the one who does the drawing, driving, building, etc. If you let your children do this, they will soon discover that this is a fantastic time-waster and will be more excited to play the game than to play their instrument. One exception to this is that my super-wiggly 5-year-old son benefits from having a little run-around a few times in his practice session, and letting him out of his cello chair to park a dinky car allowed him to channel his wiggles.
Practicing like this takes a bit more time, but trust me, it is well worth it. Happy practicers are more effective and more willing to try difficult tasks.
If you decide to resort to candy, don't worry- we've all done it! Try to use small incentives for each item your child needs to practice, so that the overall sugar intake doesn't overwhelm them. We like to use semi-sweet chocolate chips or mini marshmallows. You can either line them up after each task is done, or eat them as you go- you decide!
Still need more help getting into the practicing routine? Read Two Steps to Happy Practicing for ideas!
About the Author:
Rebecca Lane is the director, founder, and owner of Upper Beaches Music School. She teaches at the school on Saturdays, but most days you can find her chasing after her three young children, all of whom now take music lessons at UBMS.