A series of coincidences led NIU Associate Professor of Music Jui-Ching Wang to Indonesia to witness firsthand the value of traditional children’s singing games.

At the beginning of her tenure in NIU’s School of Music, Wang found herself directing the school’s Indonesian Gamelan Ensemble. To do the best job possible, she immersed herself in learning everything she could about gamelan, a traditional Indonesian percussion ensemble.

Wang found a book on singing games in NIU’s Founders Memorial Library, and as luck would have it, the granddaughter of the author was working as a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant in a course Wang was taking at NIU to learn to speak and write Indonesian.

The teaching assistant was Dyah Pandam Mitayani, or “Mita.”

“Mita told me the whole story of how her grandfather composed children’s songs based on the traditional music style in Indonesia,” Wang said. “On the [Indonesian] Island of Java, there’s an elementary school that was established in 1922 and it was the first school for Javanese children to attend.”

The school was named Taman Siswa, which translates to “Children’s Garden.”

“Java was colonized by the Dutch,” Wang continued. Prior to this school opening, only members of the royal family or noble class could go to school with the Dutch. So ordinary Javanese children didn’t go to school.

The founder of that school had met Montessori when he was an exile in the Netherlands in the 1910s, and he was influenced by Montessori. When he came back to Java, he worked to incorporate their unique cultural heritage into the school. He felt that the European education system was good, but he wanted Indonesians to value their own cultural heritage. He insisted that among the traditional values that were being taught, that singing games be incorporated into the curriculum.

“Before that, children would just sing and play outside and help their parents with farming or house chores. But all along they would play together as a group and that’s how the singing games started.”

Singing games went from the primary way Indonesian children learned to being intertwined with a European system of learning, giving these young students the best of both worlds and taking best advantage of what Wang says is an innate gift for multitasking.

“There’s a strong musical characteristic there,” she said. “It’s fascinating how young children can do multiple layers of singing and play instruments. One group of children can play instruments and the other group can sing against what they play. They do it without having formal music training. What attracted me to learning more and more about it was how complex the music is. The more I learned the Indonesian language, the more I learned about the history of Indonesia and began to realize that the language and music is really a whole package that comes together.”

In 2014, Wang traveled to visit Mita’s family in Yogyakarta on the island of Java for ten days. “Her parents were very enthusiastic about my visit and took me to Taman Siswa, where I was greeted by a group of young children,” Wang said. “They sang and danced and that’s what really got me interested in studying how, in the 21st century, there are still some schools who are interested in and value this kind of learning.”

Wang says that even in Indonesia, this kind of curriculum is rare. “It’s more like here where we don’t allocate time for children to learn that kind of tradition. It takes a lot to do that.” Upon her return Wang published an article about the use of singing games in Indonesian schools. In 2016, she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Java to continue her research. She spent ten months visiting that same elementary school nearly every day.

Jui-Ching Wang with the students of Taman Siswa.

“Why is it important to have children play inside a school setting?” Wang asked. “Because they don’t want children to be just sitting, receiving information. They want children to grow in a natural setting. That’s why they named the school ‘Children’s Garden,’ because every child is going to grow differently, just like you have in your garden. Different flowers, different trees, different everything. It’s child-centered learning.”

Wang said that despite the importance that the Taman Siswa movement had in the development of Indonesian education, it is dying out.

“They feel like they have a chance to revive what was glorious in the past,” she said. “They see this as the pearl now. They have something that other schools don’t have, and that was the reason they valued my time there.”

With Wang’s assistance, they successfully submitted a proposal to the International Society for Music Education, and a group of children from Taman Siswa got to perform at the 2018 ISME World Conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, July 15-20.

“They were very excited,” Wang said. “It was the first time ever that an Indonesian children’s group had ever performed these traditional songs outside of Indonesia.”

She is putting what she learned to use, incorporating her findings and methods into the elementary education and general music method courses that she teaches at NIU. She has also developed graduate level and seminar courses and is always looking for ways to lead groups of graduate students and collaborate with them or faculty to develop research projects together.

One such project is a collaboration with Yogyakarta State University in Yogyakarta to conduct a survey examining how non-Taman Siswa public schools in central Java incorporate the use of some singing games into their curricula.