Let’s dance, let’s play: The genius of Jim Gill

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 6:00 am

By Erin Dodge

If you’re a parent or caregiver of a young child, then you may already know the joyful, playful music and stories of Jim Gill. If you haven’t yet heard his music or attended an interactive performance, then you are in for a treat!

Get ready to jump, dance, sing, clap, and even sneeze along to the energetic rhythms of Jim Gill’s award-winning music and stories for kids on August 25. Jim’s music not only gets little bodies grooving—it gets brains thinking and faces smiling. Grownups will have a blast too!

I asked Jim a few questions about his music-play philosophy and what it means for your family and mine. Keep reading to get the details of Jim’s upcoming performance for families and classes for parents, caregivers, and teachers.


Erin: Would you share what “music play” means and its importance?

Jim: Young children don’t sit and listen to music in the way that teenagers and adults do. When there is music in the air they want to jump and dance and spin. In other words, they want to play! I am always amazed that as soon as a young child can stand—before she or he can even “toddle”—that child will start bouncing to music. It is quite a workout for those legs!

Years ago I developed a style of songwriting that combines opportunities for active play—bouncing, hopping, spinning and dancing—with word play and rhymes. My songs are, for the most part, musical games.

I ended up studying child development in graduate school – play in particular—and I realized that I was just as interested in play as I was in music. But I didn’t have to choose between the two areas of interest because music is a great way to play!

There are plenty of opportunities for movement in my songs because young children need to move. But the songs also challenge young children to listen to the lyrics and the tempo and the “stops” as well as the “goes.”

Erin: You champion family involvement. Can you share a bit about what happens when families play together?

Jim: Sure! I’ll give you an example from the type of play most everyone is familiar with.

Try to picture what happens when a young child—let’s say a 2 or 3 year old—is playing with a wooden puzzle with a caring adult nearby. The child dumps out the pieces and, if it is a difficult puzzle, gets overwhelmed and doesn’t even know where to begin. Frustration sets in.

The adult doesn’t say, “Let me do that for you.” The adult says, “You can do it. Just pick one piece, just one piece.” And if the words aren’t enough guidance, the adult takes the child’s hand and helps the child pick up a single piece.

The child might start to try and force the piece into the first open slot and, if it is not a match, might get frustrated once again. The adult says, “Try another place. Try another spot.” And, if need be, the adult takes the child’s hand and guides it to the correct slot in the puzzle.

The child might start to try and force the puzzle piece into the slot, but if it is not oriented correctly it won’t slide in. If the child gets frustrated, the adult says, “Turn it a little bit. Turn the piece a little bit.” And, if need be, the adult takes the child’s hand again and helps the child turn the puzzle piece and guide it in the slot.

The adult then says, “Look! You did it all by yourself!”

The process repeats over and over until the puzzle is complete, but the adult gives different degrees of help with each puzzle piece.

The child could never have completed the puzzle on his or her own and the adult did not do the work for the child. The adult helped the child learn how to complete the puzzle—and future puzzles—by giving just the right amount of help that was needed at the moment.

Researchers know that this type of interaction is the most effective way for children to learn. And this is the type of process that happens naturally when adults get engaged in play with children.

If you think about it, it is how young children learn about the process of reading when we, as adults, read books with them. We help them learn to turn pages, notice important features in the illustrations, and pay attention to the words on the page.

I create my songs and my books as opportunities for those kind of interactions between children and caring adults. There are all sorts of opportunities for children to learn through the games. And the adults, when they join in the play, make that learning possible. And it is a joy!

Erin: What can parents and caregivers expect when they attend one of your family concerts?

Jim: First of all, they can expect to have a great time! The concert is clap-along, sing-along, and dance-along, and it is fun to see children laugh and smile as they play!

Secondly, they will likely find themselves playing along by spinning the child they came with and, perhaps, tossing him or her up in the air during one of the bouncing or jumping games. And they won’t be able to miss that look of “do it again” on the child’s face.

This video clip of the song “Alabama, Mississippi” from a live concert shows the type of play that folks can expect.

Erin: Do you have any advice for parents who may feel uncertain or hesitant about “music play“?

Jim: I honestly can’t think of why anyone would be uncertain. If a parent reads a book to a child the child is, most likely, sitting on the parent’s lap. The clap-along songs and the finger plays that I share in the concert are a similar experience to that. There are times when we all stand up to dance, but the adults are not necessarily “dancing”—although plenty of folks do. The adults are, most often, helping the children listen for cues in the lyrics for how to move or when to stop. Or they are, as I mentioned earlier, tossing a little one up in the air or spinning that child around.

I am not a “big kid” and I don’t expect adults to act like big kids either. We are adults helping children have a wonderful time! And we get to watch the joy in their faces as they play!

Erin: You’ve talked about how your graduate studies in child development informs your music, performances, and literacy events. How do those creative endeavors help inform your work with other early childhood educators?

Jim: That is a great question! I most often think about how my studies in child development have influenced my approach to my music and my family concerts. But, now that you have brought it up, there is no doubt that it works the other way as well.

One of the best things about my work is that I get to watch children laugh and jump and dance and spin whenever I am in front of them with my banjo.

I get a front row seat to joy.

It is true that there are lots of developmental benefits to this play—and I like to talk with educators about this—but those benefits are inseparable from the joy in the play.

That is one of the points that I bring up in my workshops for early childhood educators. In fact, the workshop I will be leading in Spokane is “A Joyous Way to Learn!” Folks always mention my enthusiasm and energy level during the workshops, and I suppose that is my way of giving the teachers a glimpse of what I see when I am working with children.


Jim Gill Family Concert
Sponsored by the Friends of the Spokane County Library District

2426 N Discovery Pl
Saturday, August 25, 10–11am

This event is open to the public, and there is no charge for admission. We recommend that you arrive early to find a parking spot and a seat!


Jim Gill: Joyous Music Play to Promote Literacy, Readiness, Math Development, & Inclusion
3 STARS credits. Registration is required.

Sponsored by the Friends of the Spokane County Library District

Friday, August 24, 9am–12pm  |  REGISTER ONLINE

Saturday, August 25, 2–5pm  |  REGISTER ONLINE



For more information about these events and other library programs, grab your copy of Engage at one of our libraries or flip through the digital version of Engage.

Erin Dodge

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