3 Nutcracker Activities for Elementary Music Class

As winter and the holidays approach, it’s that time of year again when music teachers around the country whip out their old VHS tapes of The Nutcracker and dig out lessons as old as they are. Don’t get me wrong – I love The Nutcracker! I’m also a big fan of thematic planning in my music classroom, and The Nutcracker is the perfect opportunity to cover musical concepts like beat vs rhythm, ta rest, and movement.  So naturally, I had to share my Nutcracker activities for elementary kids with you! These activities work best with K-2 grade students.

What is thematic planning?

Thematic planning is when you create a series of lesson plans relating to a certain topic or theme. Music teachers do this all the time without realizing it – who hasn’t done a Carnival of the Animals unit? I’ve found that thematic planning adds a ton of engagement, especially when you choose a topic that excites students.

Thematic units can be as short as a week or as long as a whole quarter!  They also make planning a lot easier for you. You have a specific topic in mind while you’re planning, which helps you create connections across your lessons (and that helps with student retention and understanding). Basically, it’s a win-win overall!

Nutcracker Activities for Elementary

I use these Nutcracker activities with my first grade students to teach ta, ti-ti- and ta rest. These activities can be made more challenging for second grade students by adding in half notes where appropriate. You can also use them for kindergarten by removing the ta rest.

Use Manipulatives with Beat Strips

With younger students, I like to use beat strips to introduce rhythm. There are several ways you can keep beat strips fun and interesting using various manipulatives. The classic way is to use popsicle sticks. Students imitate stick notation (no pun intended) by using one stick for ta and creating a ti-ti shape for eighth notes. (For ta rest, I use a Z shape.) 

Another way is through small objects, such as mini-erasers (who doesn’t love those?), bottle caps, bingo dots, and more. When using small objects, ta rest will be a blank space. Bring in the nutcracker theme with some themed manipulatives.

Two beat strips, one with hearts and one with snowflakes, on a desk. Around them are cards with characters from The Nutcracker ballet. Each character's card includes a picture of the character, the character's name, and the rhythm that goes with the character's name.

Of course, we have been talking about Nutcracker activities for elementary kids, which is why I made beat strips specifically for a Nutcracker unit. The rhythm squares each correspond to a character from the Nutcracker. It includes a composition worksheet, one and two beat patterns, and ta and ti-ti rhythms.

Incorporate Movement and Body Percussion

Movement is a must when thinking about Nutcracker activities for elementary students.  Movement is a key part of music class already. In addition to learning about expressive movement, it can help us teach music concepts like beat vs rhythm. One way to do this is by using body percussion.

My favorite song to use is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy because it exclusively uses the rhythms  ta, ti-ti, and ta rest. I start with “put a beat in your feet” to get students tapping their feet or stomping. In the next lesson, we use this video to clap the rhythms. 

Lastly, we combine stepping to the beat and clapping the rhythm. 

It can also be fun to just do some creative movement to music from The Nutcracker! It is a ballet, after all. This is a great opportunity to practice some Laban theory! In the past, I’ve had male students who are shy about dancing, so I like to show them examples of male dancers and characters from the Nutcracker, such as the Mouse King or the Nutcracker himself. 

Play-alongs with the Nutcracker Songs

Play-alongs are a really fun Nutcracker activity for elementary students. These are definitely some of my students favorite activities because they are engaging, challenging, and fun! During play-alongs, you can have students use body percussion or unpitched percussion (UPP). You can bring out the drums, maracas, boomwhackers, and more.

Again, I recommend the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy for play-alongs. During your movement activity, you used body percussion. Now, have students try with UPP. This is a great video to start with because it’s relatively slow and easy to follow along with. You can even slow the video down using YouTube’s playback settings. For a fun challenge, keep upping the speed. This is usually where the laughter comes in! Let students know it’s okay to make mistakes and just have fun.

My students always enjoy using the boomwhackers, so of course I had to share the version of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy made just for boomwhackers!

If you want an entire unit of ready-to-go Nutcracker activities for elementary music, then you’ll want to grab this Nutcracker Music Activities Bundle. It includes

  • Musical Nutcracker Escape Room 
  • Nutcracker Rhythm Unscramble Puzzle
  • Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy Activities
  • Beat Strips for Rhythm Practice & Composition
  • Nutcracker Music Rhythm Practice Activities

This thematic Nutcracker unit will help your students master ta, ti-ti, and ta test. They will be pros at rhythm and composition by the end. Plus, they will have lots of fun doing it. (Oh, and it’s be an easy unit for you to implement during the busy holiday season.)

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