Best Musical Instruments for Kids Under Age 5

As a parent, I am sure that you are dumbfounded by the sheer amount of musical toys on the market. We all like the idea of introducing our kids to music, but which instruments should we buy? Does my 3-year-old child really need a $300 guitar? As a professional musician and dad of a toddler who is currently dealing with this issue, I am going to try to greatly simplify the process for you in a way that will save you money without compromising your child's musical explorations. My emphasis will be on presenting cool (wood, handmade, Fair Trade, Eco-Friendly) alternatives to the cheesy plastic instruments sold at most toy stores. I like the idea of finding instruments with staying power -- ones that have the potential to be played for a lifetime assuming that they survive the toddler years - or at least can be saved as keepsakes. That toy drum adorned with popular cartoon characters is not going have much use after age 5, and is destined for a landfill.

The first thing I am going to do is separate musical toys from musical instruments. For clarity, I am defining a musical instrument as any device that has a direct correlation between a child's action and pitch. For example, hitting a drum, plucking a string, striking a key, or blowing air through it all result in a tone or pitch being produced. I will even go one step further and say that there must be some way to play an actual melody (note for note) on the toy in a way that resembles a real musical instrument (excluding drums and percussion instruments like shakers). This is difficult to put in words, but it will become very clear as you read on.

Working from this definition, most Musical Tables, and Toy Guitars with no strings and lots of flashy buttons do not qualify as musical instruments. I am not saying that these toys are bad or useless (purists will vehemently disagree) - simply that they are not musical instruments. We have an activity table that I thought I would hate, but as I observed my son discovering more things on it and "commanding it", I began to see some value. At 2, he could make it play the 'Counting to Ten Song' and the 'Alphabet Song' as he sang along. Nevertheless, we try to keep the flashy battery operated toys to a minimum.

I should mention that some of the alternative instruments are handmade and imported. A few of the retailers screen the products to make sure that they are not manufactured with toxic materials. If you have questions or concerns about a particular instrument, please contact the store directly before buying.

I should also mention that this article is only meant to be small guide to get you started on your search. Obviously, there is no way to cover every musical instrument on the market, but hopefully my research will save you a lot of time and will help you make sound buying decisions (pun intended).

Avoiding Frustration is the Key
For children under the age of 5, music should be all about play and the joy of discovery. You don't want to frustrate your child by introducing an instrument beyond their capabilities. Naturally, every child is going to be different in terms of developmental abilities, and you will have to discern whether a particular instrument is too advanced. In this case, you can simply put the instrument away and try again in six months or a year.

Percussion Instruments for Kids
The obvious place to start is with percussion instruments (shakers, drums, tambourines, etc...) since they are the most primal and the most capable of providing instant gratification. However, most parents are unaware of the alternatives to the kiddie plastic stuff found on the toy isles. Remo Percussion has a cool line called "Remo Kids Percussion", and Meinl Percussion has a kid line called "Nino Percussion" that has the best instruments in my opinion. The Nino product line definitely has staying power as instruments and keepsakes. Jamtown is a great source for more eclectic Fair Trade instruments with a great line of handmade shakers and drums that are definitely keepsake worthy.

Plan Toys is an environmentally conscious company that makes its toys from recycled rubber wood and colored eco-friendly dyes. They get big points for this. However, most of their instruments will not have much use beyond the toddler years. Their toy instruments tend to be more for the ages 1 - 3, and my favorite one is the Solid Wood Drum. It can produce three different tones and is a great example of an early instrument that can be played for a while. It is also a nice keepsake.

Depending on the child, drum sets often require motor skills beyond a toddler's capabilities to be played properly. However, if your child is drawn to a drum set by all means go for it - especially if a family member already plays the drums and can instruct your child on the basics.

And let's not forget that empty boxes and pots and pans make great drums as well!

Also in the realm of percussion are pitched percussion instruments such as toy pianos, xylophones, and glockenspiels. These make great instruments for toddlers because there is a direct correlation between action and pitch, and they only require the motor skills of touching or striking. The only thing to watch out for in this area is that there are many on the market that are not tuned (the notes do not correlate to a scale) -- making them noise makers as opposed to instruments. The best way to research this is to read the comments from online retail sites. The feedback from parents in this area is invaluable, and the price difference between tuned and un-tuned is negligible.

Finally, my favorite percussion instrument for kids is the Kalimba. The Kalimba is an African instrument that is played by plucking the tines or keys with the thumbs. It is also called a Thumb Piano or Mbira. There are tons of import versions of Kalimbas online, but most of them do not claim to be child friendly and consistency/quality seems to be a big issue. I list a few good sources on my site. The Kalimba is another great example of an instrument with staying power. You'll be able to play it for a lifetime.

Wind Instruments for Children
Buying a wind instrument for children under age 5 is a little tricky because you want to be sure they have the lung capacity and are old enough to understand the concept. Unlike simply striking a percussive instrument and producing a tone, wind instruments require your child to blow and finger at the same time. As a result, most wind instruments are recommended for children over age 3. Here again, I believe you can introduce it sooner especially if a family member happens to play a wind instrument.

Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to the cheesy plastic versions of trumpets, saxophones, and clarinets simply because the legitimate versions are beyond the abilities of most kids under 5. In addition, the real versions can potentially cause problems with your child's developing mouth and facial structure.

Hip alternatives include the Suling flute and Ocarinas sold by Jamtown. They are recommended for children over age 3. I bought both of them for my 2 1/2 year old son, and they were definitely too advanced for him. I'll try again when he turns 3.

Harmonicas are also popular wind instruments for children, and they are tuned to a particular scale so that there are no "wrong notes". Hohner has been making Harmonicas for 150 years and is a good place to start.

String Instruments for Kids
String instruments are actually quite challenging for kids under age 5 so you want to be careful not to introduce them too early. Guitars and violins require a toddler to do two actions simultaneously to produce a melody: fret the string with one hand while strumming, plucking, or bowing the string with the other. They also require a fair amount of finger strength. Finally, even if your child can manage the first two actions, producing a musically pleasing tone is not easy.

For this reason, guitars and violins are not instruments that most children under 4 can get going on their own. They really require some form of formal instruction, either privately or in a group.

A Ukulele is perfect for small hands and is a genuine alternative to the plastic electronic guitars with all of the buttons and flashing lights. At least it has strings (4) and is made of wood. However, most of the toy Ukuleles do not hold their tuning so if you want an instrument that your child can grow with, I'd spend a little extra and buy a 'real' one. Again, read the feedback online in order to find one that holds its tuning. It will only cost you about $20 more than the toy version, and it will also look nice on a shelf if it survives the early years. The Lanikai LU-21 Soprano Ukulele is a good example of a proper beginner's instrument.

If you are looking for a real guitar or violin, I highly recommend a visit to your local dealer. This is the best approach as opposed to trying to find the right instrument online. In addition, a local dealer may also be able to provide lessons.

I discovered Lyres while I was doing the research for this article. They appear to be very cool because they don't require a child to fret with one hand and pluck the string with the other as on a guitar. You tune them to a scale, pluck the strings, and there will be no "wrong" notes. Most include songbooks and tuning instructions so you will need a little musical knowledge to set it up and maintain it. The only drag is that they are quite expensive (around $130), but if you factor in that they can be played for many years, the extra expense may not seem so exorbitant. Plus they are beautiful looking instruments, and they are definitely keepsake worthy. I suggest searching for a YouTube video of someone playing it to see a Lyre in action.

Time for Lessons?
This is a good time to bring up when you should actually start formal lessons for a child. There is lots of debate in this area, but certainly if your child expresses a desire then go for it. However, conventional wisdom is that during this period, music and instruments are more of an activity and formal instruction is not required. Most agree that the time for private lessons starts after age 5 depending on the child. "Tiger Mom" would disagree, but I am going let my child's interests and explorations be the guide during these years. Incidentally, I remember wanting to take piano lessons around the age of 7 or 8, and I started at age 11.

My Child has a few Instruments - What's Next?
So what do you do after you buy a few of these instruments? Stay tuned for the next article...

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