We who love music like to enjoy it with our kids. Not only that, knowing the added benefits of learning music, we spend happy moments singing with them – from nursery rhymes to our favourite tunes. We take them to music lessons and the best concerts or music sessions available in the city, but the moment you switch on BBC Radio 3 (or the equivalent in your country) or play your favourite opera, you are very lucky if you don’t get an “I don’t want to listen to that” after just the first two chords.

An illustration from Papageno © Wikimedia Commons
An illustration from Papageno
© Wikimedia Commons

So let’s see if we can gather a few tips on how to entertain kids with some classical compositions and start sharing your passion with them in a joyful and playful way. As with everything to do with kids, we just have to convert whatever we want into something that belongs to their own world.

To start, ballets based on traditional tales are a great idea because the kids know the story already. There are several: The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella or Alice. While you watch together, you can discuss the characters in the ballet, describe the costumes, the staging, talk about how the action develops and what the dancers are expressing with their movements. Ballet performances also provide a good opportunity to talk about emotions, happiness, sadness, rage, jealousy… these are well portrayed in the stories both by the dancers’ characterization and pirouettes and of course by the music that supports them. 

Pointing out that specific instrument that plays a recurrent theme such the oboe or the violin in Swan Lake overture or the themes that represent each of the fairies in Sleeping Beauty will make our little audience a bit more intrigued. Léo Delibes' Coppelia is also fun and engaging and Prokofiev’s music for Cinderella is brilliant and stirring. The latter features a filmic and modern musical language that might be familiar for older kids if they have already seen a few films. After having watched the ballet (or part of it), both kids and grown-ups can craft a little stage and a few puppets (a drawing and a wooden stirring stick will be enough) and recreate the story or make up a totally different one to the same music! 

We've already had too much time sitting. Let’s move! Brahms’ Hungarian Dances are bursting with energy and rhythm and they are a great way to learn concepts such as quick and slow or quiet and loud. To let some more steam off let’s fly with the violins and trumpets of Ride of the Valkyries to your very own Valhalla. This one also gives you the opportunity to march with a drum.

A sleepy character plays the flute and takes us through fabulous woods in a warm summery afternoon. What will he dream of? Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune offers countless options to let the imagination fly once we’ve set up our springboard: dancing, hiding, reading a story while listening to this piece or inventing a new one around the melody of the flute.

We have mentioned pointing out specific instruments and melodies when they are easily distinguishable. This makes kids listen attentively and very proud when they can recognise them by themselves. For that, it is interesting to gradually introduce different timbres. Whenever the opportunity arises, ask what is that instrument we are hearing. From their confinement, the Orchestre national de France has just done this lovely video in which we can see and hear how the instruments build up Ravel’s Bolero

We will finish with the thing that kids love best: animals. Cut out a mask from a cardboard sheet and paste some feathers on it. What have we become? Papageno and Papagena, of course. There is no need to explain that Papageno is a bird catcher, just that he likes to disguise himself as one and has a set of magic chimes to protect him during his adventures until he finds Papagena. It is really fun for them to try and sing the lovely duet imagining they are birds. 

Now you are on a mission to go around the house and find the next toys: a lion, a hen, a donkey (a swift one), a tortoise, an elephant, a kangaroo… Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals is a fun and brilliant composition. The complete piece is a bit too long, select some movements and play to guess which animal is represented and discuss how it is done. Imitate the animals keeping up to the rhythm or invent a story with the characters portrayed in the music and link the movements. 

These are just some examples of how to get kids to enjoy some compositions that weren’t intended for children and that are part of the standard repertoire. By simplifying concepts, creating or explaining stories around the pieces and drawing their attention to specific musical details they can really engage with many other of your favourite works and most importantly, have fun together.