Bringing Out the Best: Little Kids Rock

Dave Wish and Little Kids Rock help kids unlock their inner music makers.

With the advent of Playworks’ 20th Anniversary and our aim of reaching 3.5 million kids in 7,000 schools by 2020, I am launching a new blog called "Bringing out the Best." The idea is to highlight amazing work by Playworks’ partners to bring out the best in our communities through play. I am excited for this chance to learn more about the state of play, and I welcome your suggestions for stories!

I first met David Wish at a conference outside Paris for Ashoka. As Dave tells it, I had just arrived from the flight from San Francisco, and I looked awful. Someone spotted me as I was making my way to a bed and cajoled me into running some games. According to Dave, it was wildly fun and the group of humans who played together bonded throughout the conference, some even staying in touch years later. It was an experience, Dave points out, just like playing music together.

Back in 1996, Dave Wish was an elementary school teacher frustrated by the lack of funding for music at his school. He started teaching after-school guitar lessons that ultimately became so popular, he had to recruit musician friends to come and help. In 2002, Little Kids Rock was born. Since then, Little Kids Rock has made amazing music education available to over 400,000 students in primarily low-income schools.

When I set out to write a blog on other groups and humans leveraging the power of play to bring out the best in every kid, I admit that I didn’t think too deeply about how, exactly, I would define play. As Scott Eberle, editor of the American Journal of Play, says, “Defining play is difficult because it’s a moving target. [It’s] a process, not a thing.” 

I suppose I could argue that there’s a reason they call it “playing” music, but the bigger connection for me to Little Kids Rock is in their approach. Little Kids Rock is a music program that gives all students the opportunity to unlock their inner music maker. They train teachers and donate instruments to schools, but even more than that, they build music programs that tap kids’ intrinsic desire to create, perform, and improvise the music they love.

I watched one of their instructors lead a workshop for teachers by having them jump onto guitars from the get go. All the teachers were strumming along enthusiastically with ACDC, and there was a sense of gleeful abandon not generally found in teacher professional development workshops. The exuberance and generosity in the room felt like the best of moments on the playground. Just idea that these teachers were being encouraged to go back and share this sensibility was enough to make even the most cynical person hopeful.

Dave is a talented musician and a lover of great music, but in his work with music education, he very pointedly raises the question “to what end?” In traditional music education—say the creation of a student orchestra—students are assigned to different chairs for the different instruments. When they have a full orchestra, students not selected are left out. It is not unlike a competitive sports team in that regard.

Instead, Dave asks, is music education about students serving the music, or music serving the students? I think there is a comparable question to ask about play and sports. This is the guiding question we should all ask to build the schools our children need and deserve. 

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