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Friday, March 23 Local

New program at Greenwich’s Bruce Museum strikes a chord with toddlers

The Bruce Museum played host to a whole hypothetical animal kingdom in the woods: Squirrels hopped, owls hooted, crows cawed. And somehow, both chickens and dogs wound up in an oak tree.

Such were the scenarios that filled lyrics and ditties at “Museum Musicians,” a new program that fosters music appreciation among toddlers ranging in age from 10 months to 2 years.

The offering will take place on the first Thursday of each month through May and is included with an adult’s museum admission. Each session has a theme that coincides with one of the Bruce’s exhibits, like “Shapes and Colors” or “Space/Moon;” this month, the focus was on all sorts of woodland animals.

As Jackie Jacobs, director of Music Together of Fairfield County, led parents, grandparents and nannies through song and dance, their charges also participated, with the occasional wandering soul straying from the group to scout out a large taxidermied moose on the wall. One little girl practically refused to sit still. When she wasn’t exploring, she danced and twirled to the rhythms as everyone knocked together egg-shaped castanets in a show of solidarity.

Other children stayed quietly with their guardians, casually swaying or laughing as they were nestled into laps and trotted like wild horses in the forest.

Though some instructors might prefer the latter student, in Jacobs’ view, a more adventurous reaction to the program is totally worthwhile as well.

“Children teach themselves through play,” Jacobs said. “They teach themselves everything through play. And so their exploration is critical to their learning process. And at this age and stage, we don’t need to tell them, ‘Do it this way,’ in order for them to learn.”

Jacobs, who has worked as an educator for 26 years, noted that though most people think of musical capacity as a talent, it is actually a gift that everyone has.

“All human beings are born with basic music competence,” she said. “The underlying goal for all children is to be able to express their inherent musicality.”

But to learn about music, a kid does not necessarily have to be following a formula or sitting attentively, singing along with every exercise. Jacobs likened it to learning language: A child doesn’t need to always study and focus to pick up words. Instead, he just has to be immersed and encounter for himself.

In Jacobs’ class, part of that discovery process came from toying with different percussion instruments. Another was ingrained in the types of music she chose — not only English songs in major keys, but also conga beats and traditional Mexican folk.

While Jacobs was present to instruct, she said that a child’s most important person — their caregiver — needs to be the one modeling musical behavior to demonstrate its significance. On Thursday, that didn’t mean the adults in the room had to be modern Mozarts. They just needed to be willing to try.

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For a group of toddlers, there were very few tears during the hourlong program. Jacobs wasn’t surprised. In fact, there’s science behind the phenomenon: She said that even Neanderthals would sing to calm their babies so they could go out and hunt for food.

“When parents and children make music, the stress hormone in your brain and in your child's brain reaches its optimal level,” she said.

For the museum, the new class is a way to get younger visitors to traverse its halls. Laura Stricker, who manages youth and family programs, said even though admission is free for kids under 5, people don’t always bring their toddlers to the Bruce.

She wants to change that.

“My particular goal here is to get families with young children coming to the museum,” Stricker said.