By Jackie Vilca, MT-BC

In working with children, a common theme that happens in sessions is that toys are present in the room. This may be because the room houses these toys, or the child brought their toys with them into the session. I have encountered this in multiple settings: after school programs, foster care, pediatric settings on all units, and therapeutic-day schools.

Perhaps when this first occurs, it can be seen as becoming a distraction to what is currently happening during an intervention. But whether in a group setting or individual setting, there may be opportunities to try creating inspiration from the initial distraction. From there, through a songwriting process, there can be a lot of space provided for exploration and really tailoring the experience to what goals you are working on whether it be attention, creativity, self-esteem, or social interactions.

When a child brings in a toy, I try to use that as an opportunity to enter their world of interests and attempt to work with the child to write a song about the toy! This can create an atmosphere that is welcoming and interesting to the young client, and they actually become more engaged (in my experience) with the music/songwriting, instead of what may have initially been viewed as an opportunity for the child to have become less engaged.

None of what I write here is law or regimented. These are just ideas and experiences that I am drawing from. They could perhaps be positive for your young clients as well! If you find this interesting and want to try, you are more than welcome to take or change anything written below. I am also securely positive that this is a not a new idea at all!

When writing a song about a toy (with a group of children, or with one child), here are the musical ideas I find myself using often, and musical concepts I try to keep in mind for both myself and my client(s):


  1. Accompaniment is usually a harmonic instrument. This is a new song being improvised, and the client(s) has never heard it before. To fully establish the melody of this new song, harmonic instruments such as guitar or ukulele are great tools to utilize.
  2. Accompanying instrument is usually small. During this songwriting process, I find it very valuable to use portable/small instruments such as guitar or ukulele in order to use the size to my advantage and place myself very close to the client(s) and their toy. The closer the therapist, the more meaningful and direct the interactions become.
  3. Keep rhythm and melody simple. As pointed out before, this is a new song for both the therapist and the client(s). Keeping the melody simple mainly refers to utilizing the most common intervals in children’s songs such as minor thirds, major thirds, any brief step-wise motion, and fifths. Keeping a straight-forward rhythm will help as well. I usually avoid using too much syncopation or anything faster than an eighth note. Common chords of children’s songs are great to utilize as well, mainly I, IV, and V7. If the child is older or has interacted musically many times, I will insert vi occasionally. Create a melody and rhythm that you know the client will learn quickly overall.

Song Structure-

  1. Create a “chorus.” The “chorus” of the songs I improvise tend to be between two to four lines. They often rhyme, but not every single time. I have observed that as long as the lyrics are meaningful to the client(s), they remember every word no matter the rhyme structure (or lack thereof).
  2. Improvise verses in between repetitions of the chorus. Verses I improvise tend to be about as long as the chorus (two to four lines). Similar to my experiences in improvising choruses, my verses tend to rhyme often (lots of thinking on your feet!), but I do not see this as a hard and fast rule. The most important factor in the creation of the lyrics in my sessions is that I am utilizing the words and experiences of my client(s) world with their toys.
  3. Alternate verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Inserting additional materials about the client(s)’ experiences with their toys is a wonderful way to externalize and reflect their experiences. Routinely returning to the chorus throughout the song allows many opportunities for the client(s) to confidently engage musically with the music therapist. The chorus will become familiar and grounding enough for the client(s) to (hopefully) feel empowered enough to sing along, to gesture with the lyrics, to begin playing an instrument with their music therapist, or to invite others to sing as well!


  1. What do you use for the chorus? When the toy is first being integrated into a song, I often ask an open-ended questions such as, “Wow! Tell me about _______,” “I’ve never seen this before! What’s _______like?” “Wow! That looks awesome. What do you do together?” If the client(s) did not feel comfortable yet verbalizing to me, I would go off of physical appearance of the toy, or would also read the packaged box if it was nearby (this was mainly in pediatric settings). Examples of choruses I can remember are:

“Zoey is my best friend, she’s an awesome zombie ‘til the end! ‘Til the end of time!”

“My LOL dolls, always going an adventures with me. Today we’re going to the mall- just you wait and see.”

“I’m driving in my racing car it’s a fire-y red. I’m driving in my racing car. I’m driving to all of my friends!”

“Carly is building a house. It’s going to be big for her family. When they all see it, they will say ‘Wow Carly!’”

I have noticed that the first introduction the client(s) makes about their toy is usually what is most important to them. Therefore, I use the information as the most repeated and highlighted section of the song.

  1. What do you use for the verses? Throughout this experience/intervention, I am playing the accompanying chords (almost vamping) the entire time. Each time I (or we) finish singing the chorus, I continue playing the chords and ask questions that can provide me with more detail about how the client(s) usually plays with the toy or why else the toy is very important to them. Next, I improvise a verse on the information I receive, and then repeat the chorus in between each verse.

Questions are tailored to the toy that we’re using, but these are the main questions I ask:

  1. Their name? If they didn’t provide a name, I ask to insert it into a verse!
  2. What do they like to do for fun? The client(s) will list different activities their toy enjoys. I have seen this also being a way for me to learn more about the client as they often list their own preferred activities. I may also ask this question multiple times, “What else do you and ________ like to do for fun?”
  3. What are they wearing? (Especially for the outfit extremes- if the outfit is very colorful or detailed, or if the outfit is very simple!)
  4. What do they like to eat?
  5. Where do they live?
  6. Where are they going today?
  7. Friends- Who are their friends? What are their friends like? What do they like to do with their friends?
  8. Where is their favorite place to go?
  9. Any other questions you think of!
  10. Structure of the improvisation:

Ask open-ended, introductory question about the toy

Improvise a chorus, inserting the client(s)’ responses

Vamp chords and ask a question about the toy to create a lyric

Improvise the lyric utilizing the information received

Repeat the chorus

Vamp chords and ask a question about the toy to create a lyric

Improvise the lyric utilizing the information received

Repeat the chorus

The structure is predictable from here ☺


The verses become a great tool to utilize for addressing the goals you have for your client! As long as you are inserting their lyric material, and including their toy, I have seen clients remain highly engaged.

Verses and be used for goals such as:

To perform tasks with their toys that aim for working towards lengthening attention, improving motor skills, or improving executive functioning.

To encourage sharing the toy and interacting as a group in order to work towards improving social interaction, decreasing isolation, and creating positive group dynamics or group cohesion.

To promote creative and emotional expression, utilizing the music and the preferred toy as tools that feel non-threatening. Through this song, they can lead an adventure that is meaningful and personalized!

To process trauma or an emotional experience that is currently happening to the client (you may notice their lyrics reflect their own personal experiences being projected as the toys’ experiences).

To normalize an unfamiliar environment or unfamiliar experience (especially if they have never been to a music therapy session before, or are in a new group).

To encourage creative development through music-based play.

Again, I am positive that this is not a new idea! These are just my suggestions and tools that I utilize when implementing this intervention into a session. In sharing these, hopefully it can help others!

Try practicing improvising songs at home! It can be a very fun experience once it begins to feel comfortable. As I shared before, none of this is law, none of this is set in stone. I would not be surprised if many music therapists actually decide to never utilize this. It’s something I turn to when I see an invitation to enter into a client(s) world and interact with them in a new way.

Toys! They don’t have to be distractions. ☺