current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Make music: Using rhythm instruments in early childhood classrooms

by Louise Parks


Note: This is the first in a two-part article. In the summer issue, we will offer ideas on using these rhythm instruments with children.



In September, Mr. Harris noticed how much interest his 3-year-old class demonstrated when he played music, sang rhymes, and offered opportunities to dance. The children clapped, swayed, and stomped their feet but seldom to the beat. After conversations with other teachers, revelations at a workshop, and a bit of research, he moved deliberately to introduce music—rhythm and beat—to the children in his group. His tools were inexpensive, easy to build, and engaging rhythm instruments that the children now use almost every day to reinforce music, literacy, and even math skills.

Over three months, Mr. Harris built a collection of instruments—shakers, sticks, bells, horns, and drums—all built from discarded or recycled household materials. He built the collection methodically and often invited the children to construct the instruments themselves.


Background information
The source of all sound is movement, scientifically called vibrations. While we can’t see sound vibrations (though we can feel and hear them), sound waves can be recorded and broadcast in an infinite variety of tones. Sound waves can travel through objects and travel best through solid objects made of metal or wood and less well through the air.

Frequency describes the rate or speed of a vibration in a given time period. Pitch corresponds to a sound’s frequency. In music, low notes have a lower frequency and sound slower or heavier, while high notes have a higher frequency and sound lighter, faster, and higher.

The degree of loudness of a sound is called volume. High volume intensifies and amplifies (makes louder) the vibrations. Volume can be loud or soft.

When sound tones are not related, we call the sound noise; when they are related, as in symphony, we call the sound music. Music is created by instruments that are designed to use frequency, the speed of sound vibrations, to control pitch—the high or low sound the instrument produces. In a stringed instrument, for example, loose strings vibrate at a lower frequency and produce lower tones, while tight strings vibrate at a higher frequency and produce higher tones.


Getting started
Build your rhythm instrument collection with donations from families and friends. Let everyone know that you’ll be building a collection over time and will send notes with specific requests. Ask for specific materials to avoid a heap of materials that are too dissimilar to use. For example, a request for empty coffee containers may bring you different sizes of cans, jars, and bags, some without lids, and many dented or pierced. Instead, ask for 1-pound metal cans, with plastic lids. Focus on a single material at a time to avoid storage issues.

Some materials will be quite specific, so it may be useful to make personal requests. For example, if you know a woodworker, you might ask for ⅝-inch wooden dowels cut into 12-inch lengths.

Of course, you can buy many instruments from educational suppliers, but it’s good to save money when you can. For triangles, xylophones, and metal cymbals that are difficult to construct, check second-hand shops and garage sales. And always keep your eyes out for used instruments such as guitars, ukuleles, and autoharps. Take care to choose or borrow instruments that reflect the musical traditions of various cultures including maracas, African drums, and Jamaican steel drums.


Making instruments
Some instruments will demand adult preparation and sometimes even completion. But never pass up an opportunity to let children be involved in creating, personalizing, and building the tools they will use.


Learning to shake an instrument challenges a child’s coordination and dexterity. Maracas (small hand-held instruments that you shake) and tambourines (shallow, hand-held drums that you shake, rub, or hit with the knuckles) invite explorations of rhythm and tempo. Consider making a variety of instruments and encourage children to listen to the different tones each produces.


Water bottle maracas
Traditionally, maracas were made of dried gourds filled with seeds and played for Carnival in Latin American countries. If you have a gourd garden, dry the produce to make authentic maracas.


Here’s what you need:
clear, plastic, bottles with lids
white glue
pebbles or aquarium gravel
confetti (paper scraps, foil, or ribbon)


1. Invite children to place the funnel into the mouth of the bottle.
2. Measure and pour about 1 tablespoon of pebbles into the bottle.
3. Add confetti as desired.
4. Run a bead of glue around the lip of the bottle and twist the lid into place. Allow the glue to dry overnight.


Film canister shakers
Make a simple version of caxixi (pronounced ka-she-she) shakers that originated in Africa and are often used in Brazil.


Here’s what you need:
empty film canisters with lids
pebbles or aquarium gravel
white glue
colored plastic tape


1. Invite the children to pour gravel into the containers. Encourage social cooperation by having one child hold the container firmly on the table while the other holds the funnel and pours in the gravel. Remind the children that differing amounts of gravel will produce different sounds.
2. Run a bead of white glue along the lip of the container and seal with the plastic lid. Allow the glue to dry overnight.
3. Decorate the canisters with colored tape.
4. Check the caxixi regularly to make sure the lids are sealed.

Variation: Instead of film canisters, use pint-sized milk containers, plastic eggs, or small plastic bottles. Add sand, pebbles, woodworking washers, or gravel noise makers. Decorate with appropriate collage materials. Encourage children to compare the sounds.


Papier mâche maracas
These are durable instruments but take time to build. School-agers will enjoy this week-long project.


Here’s what you need:
small balloons
old newspaper
white glue
measuring cup
large mixing bowl
liquid tempera and brushes
cardboard tubes
colored markers
aquarium gravel
colored plastic tape


1. Cover work surface with newspaper or plastic sheeting to make cleanup easier.
2. Pour equal amounts of water and white glue into a bowl. Stir gently.
3. Tear strips of newspaper (about ½-inch wide) and put in the bowl to soak.
4. Blow up a small balloon so that the widest diameter is 4 to 6 inches across. Tie closed.
5. Cover the balloon with strips of newspaper, making sure all surfaces are covered and leaving the tied end free. Let dry overnight.
6. Add additional layers of newspaper over at least three days. You will be able to feel the hardening surface and not a pliable balloon.
7. Cut the cardboard tube into 4-inch lengths.
8. Hold the hardened balloon knot side up. Place a tube over the knot and trace a circle. Cut out the circle and push the cardboard tube into the hole. Tape the tube in place to make the maracas handle.
9. Pour about 2 tablespoons of gravel into the maracas through the tube.
10. Cover the tube opening with layers of colored plastic tape.
11. Paint the maracas and decorate as desired.


Pie pan tambourine
Buy or collect clean recycled aluminum pie plates.


Here’s what you need:
aluminum pie plates
thick pad of recycled newspaper
large nail or awl
small tack hammer
heavy twine
large plastic yarn needle
jingle bells
white glue
colored plastic tape


1. Place a pie plate, bottom up, on a pile of newspaper.
2. Invite the children to decorate the plate with tape.
3. Use the awl or a nail and hammer to make five evenly spaced holes along the circumference of the plate. School-age children may be able to do this for themselves; younger children must have adult assistance.
4. Cut 8-inch lengths of twine, five for each plate.
5. Thread the needle with a length of twine. String the twine through a hole in the pie plate and then through the top of a bell. Tie the twine in a secure knot.
6. Repeat, adding all the bells to the plate. Place a drop of glue over each of the five knots and allow to dry overnight.

Variation: Test the differing results when you tie the bells loosely and tightly to the plate.


Paper plate tambourine
This instrument is easy to make with household materials.


Here’s what you need:
heavy-duty paper plates, 2 for each tambourine
staple gun and staples
markers, crayons, or paint and brushes


1. Invite children to decorate the bottom side of two plates as they desire.
2. Place one plate on the table and put a few pebbles on it.
3. Place the second plate, bottom up, on top of the first plate.
4. Staple the edges together, placing the staples about 1 inch apart.
5. Staple strips of ribbon around the circumference of the tambourine.


Stick shaker
Show children how to shake the stick to rattle the beat.


Here’s what you need:
¾-inch diameter wooden dowel
¼-inch drill bit and hand drill
heavy cord
thick pad of recycled newspaper
colored beads with large holes
large buttons


1. Cut the dowel into 6-inch lengths.
2. At one end of the dowel, drill a ¼-inch hole.
3. Cut the cord into a 12-inch length.
4. Thread the cord through the hole and tie in place leaving 6 inches on each tail.
5. Thread each tail with several buttons and beads. Tie a secure knot at the end of the tail.


Commercially made rhythm sticks are a mainstay of music and rhythm activities in early childhood classrooms. These sticks are usually 12 inches long and ½ inch in diameter. They are designed to help children identify and repeat rhythmic patterns. Purchased sets usually include one stick that is smooth and one that is ridged. The resonant sound of wood tapping on wood is easy to identify and follow. Rubbing the smooth stick along the ridged one produces a distinct sound.

Rhythm sticks are inexpensive to buy, but you can make your own as a simple woodworking project. Buy ½-inch diameter wooden dowels (usually sold in 36-inch lengths) and cut into four 9-inch long rods. Invite children to sand and oil (with a bit of mineral oil) the rods. Allow the oil to absorb overnight and lightly sand again.


Claves (pronounced KLAH-vays) are hardwood rhythm sticks, but better. Stout and short, claves create a deeper, more resonant sound when they are clapped together.

Show children how to hold the claves. Cup one hand and rest one of the claves between the base of the thumb and the ends of the fingers, leaving an open space in the palm. Hold the end of the second clave in the free hand and bring it down to tap the first. Holding the clave too tightly, or resting it against the palm will deaden the sound. The cupped hand lets the sound resonate.


Here’s what you need:
1-inch diameter hardwood pole
wood saw
mineral oil


1. Shop for (or get donated) a wooden closet rod at a home supply store or resale shop.
2. Measure, mark, and cut the pole into 6-inch lengths.
3. Invite children to sand the pieces smooth.
4. Rub the claves with a bit of mineral oil to seal; allow the oil to absorb overnight.


Rain sticks
Variations of rain sticks have been found in Africa, South America, and China. They are played by tipping them back and forth. The pebbles falling through wire create the sound of rain.


Here’s what you need:
2-inch diameter heavy cardboard tubing or hollow bamboo stalks
wide packing tape
plastic-coated hobby wire
pebbles, small buttons, or beads
collage materials
school glue


1. Cut the tubing or bamboo into 2- to 3-foot lengths.
2. Seal one end with layers of packing tape.
3. Cut the wire into five 12-inch lengths.
4. Help the children loosely crumple the wire and gently push it into the tube, one piece at a time. Use a yardstick or dowel to push the wire into the tube, striving to space the wire bundles along the length.
5. Pour about ½ cup of pebbles into the tube.
6. Seal the open end with packing tape.
7. Decorate the rain stick with collage materials and markers.


Sand block clappers
Make sand block clappers from pairs of similarly sized wood scraps. Purchased sand blocks are about 5 inches long by 3 inches wide and ¾-inch thick. Scraps of 2-inch by 4-inch lumber cut into 4-inch lengths will be appropriate for preschoolers.


Here’s what you need:
wood block scraps
fine sandpaper
white glue
wood stapler and staples
nylon belt webbing


1. Cut the sandpaper to cover one large surface of the wood block plus 2 inches. If you’re using scrap 2x4s, cut the sandpaper into 4-inch by 6-inch lengths.
2. Evenly spread glue over the back of the sandpaper.
3. Wrap the block with the sandpaper covering one large surface and the two short sides. Let the glue dry overnight.
4. Cut the nylon webbing into 4-inch lengths.
5. Staple the webbing to the two narrow ends of the blocks for use as a handle.


Bells are enticing for children of all ages. Ankle bells stimulate an infant’s sense of hearing; older children can use them to investigate rhythm and beat.


Ankle bells
Here’s what you need:
1-inch wide elastic
large jingle bells
sewing needle and heavy carpet thread


1. Cut lengths of elastic to fit the ankle plus 2 inches.
2. Lap the ends of the elastic and sew securely.
3. Sew bells to the elastic. For safety, use large bells (at least ¾ inch) and sew securely. Check the stitches before every use.
4. Invite children to slip the bells over the ankles or place on an infant’s ankles. Encourage the children to move, shake, or dance.

Variation: Sew the bells to single-sided hook-and-loop tape. Cut the tape into 6-inch lengths. Leave 2 inches free and space the bells along the remaining 4 inches. These adjustable bracelets will fit either wrists or ankles. Consider making longer strips to fit the waist.


Clay pot bells
Ordinary clay flower pots make charming playground bells. Before you begin, identify a space from which the bells can hang either permanently or for the children to use for a specific activity.


Here’s what you need:
4-6 clay flower pots, same size or in graduated sizes
wooden beads larger than the holes in the pots
wooden dowel, old broomstick, or recycled closet rod
soft mallet


1. Check the flower pots to ensure they are free of cracks. Clean and dry each pot.
2. Cut 24-inch lengths of twine, one for each pot.
3. Tie a wooden bead to one end of the twine. Thread the other end up through the drainage hole. The bead will hold the upside-down pot in place.
4. Repeat for the other pots.
5. If you’re using graduated sizes, arrange the pots in order—smallest to largest. The smallest bell will have the highest pitch, the largest will have the lowest pitch.
6. Tie the loose end of twine of each pot to the dowel or rod.
7. Place the rod so that the bells hang free—between two chairs, across a doorway, or from an outdoor structure.
8. Show the children how to gently tap the pots with a mallet to play the bells.

Note: School-agers will enjoy constructing this bell wall themselves. Younger children will need your close supervision and assistance.

Variations: Make the bells with aluminum cans and metal nuts or washers. Use an awl or nail and hammer to punch a hole in the center of the can’s bottom. Tie a washer to the end of the twine and a stout knot about 2-inches up from the washer. Thread the other end of the twine through the hole and knot again to allow the heavy nut to dangle as a clapper.


Horns and wind instruments
Horns and other wind instruments make sound using human breath. Good breath control and awareness of hygiene are required—help children personalize their instruments so that sharing isn’t necessary. These are best for older preschoolers and school-age children to investigate, construct, and use.


The kazoo makes its sound by vibrating with the human voice—specifically the humming voice making the waxed paper vibrate.


Here’s what you need:
cardboard tubes
awl or large nail
collage materials
shallow saucer
waxed paper
rubber bands


1. Poke a hole in the center of one side of the cardboard tube. The hole should be about ¼ inch in diameter. Avoid creasing the cardboard.
2. Cut waxed paper into 3-inch squares.
3. Invite children to decorate the tubes in a way that allows them to identify their own instruments.
4. Pour a shallow puddle of glue onto a saucer. Dip one end of the tube into the glue and then onto the center of a sheet of waxed paper. Secure the paper in place with a rubber band.
5. Repeat with the other end of the tube. Allow the glue to dry for several hours. Then carefully remove the rubber band.
6. Play the kazoo by humming (some children may need practice) into the hole in the tube.

Note: Kazoo construction encourages children to work with partners. Gluing and holding the waxed paper in place is awkward; show how one child can hold the tube and paper in place while the other stretches the rubber band to hold the paper in place until the glue dries.


Soda straw whistle
Practice breath control with this simple horn.


Here’s what you need:
plastic soda straws


1. Show children how to use a soda straw as a whistle. Hold one end against the lower lip, tilt the other end downward, blow gently.
2. Encourage children to vary the pitch of the sound by cutting small bits off the end of the straw. The shorter the straw, the higher the pitch.


Panpipes are a set of whistles that are played by blowing across the top, not into the horn.


Here’s what you need:
strips of corrugated cardboard
wide packing tape
paper or plastic soda straws
felt-tipped marker
straight edge or ruler


1. Prepare for the activity by cutting lengths of cardboard 6 inches long (across the corrugation) by 2 inches wide (parallel to the corrugation).
2. If the corrugation holes are large enough, have the children push 6 straws through the holes, evenly spaced apart, leaving about 1 inch of straw at the top of the pipe.
3. If the corrugation holes are too small for the straws to slide through, let the children place six straws along the bumps. Use wide packing tape to hold the straws in place again with about 1 inch of the straw exposed at the top and 7 inches at the bottom.
4. Place the panpipe on a flat surface. To graduate the length of the individual straws, hold a straight edge about 1 inch from the straw on the left and 5 inches from the straw on the right. Draw a line across all six straws.
5. Cut each straw at a different length with the longest on the right and the shortest on the left.
6. Let the children personalize their panpipes.
7. Show the children how to hold the panpipe vertically and to blow across the tops of the straws.


Show children photos of bugles, the simplest brass instrument. It has no valves or other mechanism to alter pitch; the player controls the pitch by varying the placement of lips and tongue.


Here’s what you need:
clear plastic water bottles
craft knife
permanent, felt-tipped markers
¾-inch clear vinyl tubing
plastic tape


1. Prepare for the activity by cutting the vinyl tubing into 1-foot lengths with a craft knife.
2. Mark the bottle about 4 inches from the top and cut. You’ll use the top, funnel shape to make the bell of the bugle.
3. Show the children how to connect the tubing to the bottle top.
4. Tape the tubing in place.
5. Have the children personalize their horns with markers.
6. Play the bugle by buzzing your lips into the mouthpiece. Make a buzzing sound by smiling with your lips closed and blowing out air through vibrating lips.


Drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments exist in cultures across the globe. Invite children to play these simple instruments to set and maintain rhythms for dancing and marching.


Pot drums and cymbal lids
Introduce rhythm instruments to toddlers with recycled (or donated) cooking pots and lids. Show babies how to tap on pot bottoms and clap lids together.


Garbage can drum
Make drums from mini metal garbage cans or large, industrial size food cans.


Here’s what you need:
mini metal garbage can or No. 10 food can
permanent markers
collage materials
unsharpened pencils
yarn scraps


1. Invite children to decorate the cans with markers or collage materials.
2. Turn the cans bottom side up on the floor. Practice playing by tapping with fingers and hands.
3. Make drum mallets by gluing yarn scraps over the eraser end of unsharpened pencils. Allow the glue to dry before using on the drums.


Drum with skin
Simply, a drum has two parts—a sound box (a hollow container) and a skin (a tight cover for the container). The harder the sound box material, the greater the vibration and richer the sound. Timpani in an orchestra consist of a metal sound box and screws or a pedal that tightens or loosens the skin to change the sound produced.


Here’s what you need:
large metal bowl
plastic bag
large rubber band
unsharpened pencil


1. Make a drum skin by cutting the plastic bag to cover the opening of the bowl with a 2-inch overhang.
2. Use the rubber band to hold the plastic in place, gently tightening the plastic around the circumference of the bowl.
3. Turn the bowl bottom side up and run tape over the rubber band to hold the plastic in place securely. The tighter the skin, the higher the note.
4. Invite children to tap the drum first with their fingers and then with a mallet or drumstick. Experiment tapping with the eraser of a pencil, the unsharpened end, or an end covered with yarn, fabric, or a piece of sponge.


Parade drum
Prepare for a parade with this big drum. Ask to have 5-gallon water cooler jugs donated for the purpose.


Here’s what you need:
5-gallon jugs
collage materials
permanent markers
hand drill and ¾-inch drill bit
heavy tape
½-inch diameter cotton rope
½-inch diameter wooden dowel
wood saw


1. Decorate the jugs with markers or collage materials.
2. Turn the jug neck-side down and mark two spots 1 inch down from the flat bottom of the jug and across from each other.
3. Use the hand drill to make holes on the two opposite sides of the jug.
4. Use about 30 inches of cotton rope for the drum’s neck strap. Push one end of the rope through each hole. Shake the jug to free the two ends through the neck.
5. Tie large double knots on the two ends of the rope and pull on the rope’s center to move the knots to the hole, securing the neck strap at each end. Adjust the length of the strap according to children’s sizes.
6. Cut the dowel into 12-inch lengths for drum sticks.

Variations: Change the sound of the drum by changing the end of the drum stick. Cork, a wooden bead, sponge, fabric scraps, a rubber ball, and cotton balls will muffle and lower the sound.


No Cajun band is complete without a frottoir (pronounced FRO-twa) or washboard. It is often used as a substitute for drums in a band. The frottoir hangs from the front of the body and is tapped or strummed with finger thimbles.

A metal washboard is a treasured antique but may still be available at specialty hardware stores. As a substitute, use oven broiler trays or paint roller trays with ridged bottoms.


Here’s what you need:
frottoir or substitute
½-inch diameter cotton rope
wide packing tape
metal spoons


1. Make shoulder straps for the frottoir by cutting cotton rope into two 18-inch-long pieces. Attach the rope straps to the washboard with tape. Alternatively, lace the rope through slats in the broiler tray or the ladder grips on the paint tray.
2. Adjust the straps of the frottoir to hang loosely across the chest.
3. To play, hold one spoon in each hand and rub up and down the metal ridges.


Resources for teachers
Ardley, Neil. (1996). A Young Person’s Guide to Music. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley.
Connors, Abigail F. (2004). 101 Rhythm Instrument Activities for Young Children. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.
Connors, Abigail F. (2017). Exploring the Science of Sounds: 100 Musical Activities for Young Children. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House.
Dunleavy, Deborah. (2001). Jumbo Book of Music. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press.