Category Archives: Kindie Movement

Evolving in the Craft of Children’s Music

Embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam's first full band gig in 2013 at Essex County Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, NJ.

Our first-ever full band gig in 2013. We played songs.

Over two years ago when we were a brand new act for kids and families, I was certain that we were about as good as we were going to get. We just needed to be discovered. We were writing rock songs for kids that their parents would love too. Our songs were critiqued by our new friends in the Children’s Music Network and re-written to everybody’s satisfaction. I thought at the time my number one concern was getting the word out about how awesome we were! The kids’ entertainment blogosphere and radio scene would surely herald our arrival on the scene with great fanfare.

What we got at the time was something else, something more important; I realize that a little more each day. Instead of a long parade of articles from independent blogs through People Magazine singing our praises, as they did our heroes Justin Roberts and Laurie Berkner, we found ourselves not quite making the cut in a field crowded with amazing talent. And many of the people whose attention we were vying for were leaving a growing trail of public clues as to what they were looking for.

Thought leaders on the kindie scene like Jeff Bogle (Out with the Kids), Stephan Shepherd (Zooglobble) and Bill Childs (Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child) were writing articles about the state of the industry and the kinds of children’s music submissions that were grabbing their attention – what they had in common. These three tastemakers were emphasizing the importance of storytelling and emotional depth in the children’s songs that they loved to share. They tend to shun the more purely academic or procedural educational songs that many children’s musicians create.

The first children’s song that Amy and I ever wrote for public consumption falls squarely in the educational category – “Five Sea Lions.” It teaches the difference between sea lions and seals (a touch of marine biology) and creates practice in counting down from five (early math) to a reggae/ska beat. It was never going to grab critical acclaim among those looking for epic storytelling.

But it did resonate with an important player on the children’s music scene – Rebecca Alison (Kids Can Groove, Little Cloud Management). So much so, that she chose to world premiere our video of the song. What that taught me was, once you create a work and set it free, it can affect different people in different ways. Rebecca lives in California and created some important memories with her own child sharing their enjoyment of the sea lions native to her home state. So a purely academic song took on an emotional component within the context of her life. We took a little chance sending this song to Rebecca and it worked out in this case. It just goes to show you have to put yourself out there, even early on in your career. Trevor from GooberKids Radio, Q Manor from Tots’ Radio, and Todd from Jelly Bean Radio were also feeling what we were doing from early on, as was Phil Maq from WHFR-FM in Dearborn, Michigan, who doesn’t distinguish adults’ from kids’ music as long as it’s “good music.”

Having an early taste of success like the world premiere with Rebecca can help keep you motivated as you develop your career, but shouldn’t become a reason to believe that all you need is more publicity. Likewise, not getting all the coverage and opportunities you want is not necessarily a reason to abandon what got you this far. It may help make the case for evolving rather than suddenly re-inventing yourself into what you think someone else wants. It would be a mistake for us in the Jungle Gym Jam to distance ourselves from an academic song like “Five Sea Lions” while claiming that an emotional story song like “Lollipop Motel” is all we’re going to do now. For me, evolving means embracing where we started and celebrating the way we’ve built on it.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam perform at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2015

Over two years later, we’re playing venues nationally known for children’s music. We create moments around the songs we play.

If our songwriting has enjoyed a sort of evolution, so has our live show. I’ve had time to not only read live music producer Tom Jackson’s excellent “Live Music Method” but to absorb and apply it over time, emphasizing the creation of moments over merely the performance of songs. Attending KindieComm the past two years and experiencing the moments created by other artists also helped drive this point home to me, as did working one-on-one with Ron “Polka Dot” Albanese, a consummate children’s entertainer, who helped me not to become Polka Dot Jr. but to become a more fully realized Jungle Gym Jam guy. Our live show today is very different from our very first live show. Early on, we played the songs. We moved swiftly from one song to the next. Over time we started to take more seriously the interactive potential in introducing certain songs and the visual elements that could help unlock feelings of delight, like puppets.

Once we began introducing puppets into the act (we had seen them used sparingly and effectively by Justin Roberts to create moments as in “Willy was a Whale”), we started modestly with pre-made Folkmanis puppets. They were high quality, small puppets sized appropriately for the classroom, but not the big stage. They served us well for several months. Also, Amy did not have a clearly defined role on the stage other than to put on one of these puppets and go out into the audience during songs like “Five Sea Lions” or “Mimi the Ladybug.” We later started having young volunteers work the puppets (if we could find one who didn’t have a touch of stage fright).

As Amy took a greater interest in playing percussion instruments in the group, her role evolved and she became the go-to person for all the puppet moments. She started coming up with voices and mannerisms for the characters. I was also becoming acquainted with a great puppet maker (and puppeteer) by the name of Chris Palmieri, who custom made spectacularly large sea lion, moon, ladybug, dinosaur and Santa puppets for our stage show. I’m not sure that the visual component of our show would have come out as well as it did had we just quickly mimicked Justin Roberts, the Pop Ups or other acts that make great use of visuals. We needed to watch those acts, learn, digest, and over the course of time, figure out what moments and visual cues best apply to our show in an authentic and entertaining way.

Jason and Amy from Jungle Gym Jam create a fun and learning moment about how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I create a fun and educational moment around how to tell a sea lion from a seal.

Amy and I also understood that our record-making would have to evolve as well. Our debut album “Everyone’s Invited” had done well in earning a Parents’ Choice Approved seal, which helped sell hundreds of copies to schools and libraries. It’s the source of some of our great live moments on the stage, and we still enjoy listening to the album in the car almost 2 years later. Now, with the songwriting and song selection evolving to include a stronger emotional connection, we needed to make sure those feelings would translate to the record. For this, we chose Marc Bazerman, leader of Baze and His Silly Friends and producer of Suzi Shelton’s heartwarming “Smile in my Heart” album. We also chose Suzi to duet with me on “Free to Be…You and Me,” a song that connected me with the feelings of my own childhood and the signal to the kindie community that our band was entering a new stage of its development. This single found some of the coveted airplay that had eluded us with the first album.

If we’re evolving as songwriters, live performers and makers of records, we’re also evolving as people. We’re more attuned to what our audience wants, where we can fit into the industry, and how to go about this way of life. This is the kind of growth that can only happen over the course of years and can’t be rushed. I believe it can be accelerated. Two years and change is not a very long time for us to have developed to the point we have. Factors like attending KindieComm (where we learned much from other artists and industry professionals and established relationships) for two years straight tend to act as career development accelerants – developing both craft and connections. Paying attention to what your audience is trying to tell you is another career accelerant. Having both a mom and a wife with early childhood education expertise also provided valuable insight into what could work well for our young audience members.

If I were to give a new children’s artist just one piece of advice right now, it would be this: Seek out other people in the industry – not so they’ll discover you and shower you with praise and top-paying gigs – but so being around them will help you evolve as a children’s artist who will ultimately attract the praise and the livelihood.

I’d love for you to join the discussion about evolving as a person, a professional or an artist, in the space below! Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Philadelphia – Where Kids Rock Out with their Grown-ups!

by Jason Didner, leader of the Jungle Gym Jam rock band for kids and families

Jason and Holly rocking out at World Cafe Live in Wilmington, DelawareOver two years ago my wife Amy and I started out on a quest to create and share children’s music that expressed our then-baby-daughter’s sense of wonder and love for rock-n-roll in our brand new kindie project we called the Jungle Gym Jam. The pathways of that quest kept leading us back to Philadelphia, PA over and over again.

From our home base in northern New Jersey (in the suburbs of New York City), my earliest searches for places where children’s music is happening kept coming back with Philadelphia. The Peanut Butter and Jams concert series at the World Cafe Live repeatedly showed up as a booking to strive for. I’d see some premiere names in the children’s music game show up as performers scheduled to play there. Radio shows like WXPN Kids Corner in Philly were ones where I’d want my music played so families could hear it.

The Philly-based children’s musicians I’ve come across, like The Plants, Two of a Kind, Jonathan Sprout, Steve Pullara and his Cool Beans Band and Mr. David C. Perry were advancing the art form of children’s music each in their own way — The Plants with energetic, upbeat funk productions, Two of a Kind with their gentle and approachable style and the way they incorporate sign language into their songs, Jonathan Sprout’s proud way of singing about real-life heroes, Steve Pullara’s epic collaborative efforts to bring together children’s musicians at all levels of career development to put together stunning compilation albums for kids, and David C. Perry’s knack for embracing the silly to combine comedy, kids’ music and visual art.

The list of traveling children’s musicians from all over the U.S.A. and Canada who perform in Philadelphia’s venues reads like a “Who’s Who” of children’s music. At places like the Please Touch Museum, Longwood Gardens, the Philadelphia Zoo and, of course, World Cafe Live, you can see and hear GRAMMY Award winners and nominees, children’s multimedia wizards, and rock stars who have successfully branched out to make music for kids and families. One truly amazing band, Recess Monkey traveled all the way from their home base in the kindie stronghold of Seattle to Philly to stage their album release party. That says something about the strength of the children’s music scene in the City of Brothery Love.

A cool thing about Longwood Gardens: it’s high on the list “55 Stunning Botanical Gardens You Really Need to See Before You Die.” on Sproutabl. Go for the kindie music, stay for those amazing fountains!

A big shift in the East Coast children’s music scene began turning our hopes of connecting with Philadelphia into a reality. Just as we were about to play our first-ever gig in 2013, we learned at the last minute about a children’s music career event that would take place in New York City, called KindieFest. I felt it would be helpful to attend as newcomers to the scene, but that I couldn’t take time off work last-minute for it. I told myself, “Next year, we’ll attend.”

A few months later, I learned there wouldn’t be a “next year” for KindieFest – it had dissolved before we ever got to attend. But then came the announcement that Kids Corner at WXPN Philly would host its own new children’s music community conference that would be called KindieComm! And it would be at the World Cafe Live, that venue we dreamed of one day playing. Amy and I took the leap of faith, amid an uncertain family health situation, and booked the hotel room. For the first time as a children’s music act, we were Philly bound – not to perform, but to transform our online social connections with the kindie community into a living, in-person involvement with performers, radio hosts, TV programmers, publicists and journalists all talking passionately about the current and possible future state of children’s music. We also learned a great deal from watching the conference’s showcase performers tear it up – we learned much about how to make a greater visual impact, ways of eliciting audience participation – all that stuff in kids’ music that matters much more than which guitar effects pedal you use. A second year attending KindieComm just deepened our relationships in the community and our understanding of what makes a great children’s music performance and more importantly, a great experience for the families in attendance.

I was fortunate to be introduced to the booking manager of the World Cafe Live’s other location – the historic Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, where we gave two memorable performances for kids and their grown-ups, both at well attended events. And then a very cool thing happened; the manager we were working with in Delaware took over the booking of the kids’ shows in Philadelphia as well. And now we’re less than a week away from our first performance at this magnificent showplace!

I hope to meet you at the World Cafe Live on October 10 for the Philadelphia debut of Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam!

>> Get your tickets here for Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia for Saturday October 10 at 11 AM!

Please share your favorite experiences with children’s music in and around Philadelphia in the comments below.

Musically yours,

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam





A Brilliant Way of Sharing Music with Kids at First Roots Manville

junglegymjam-family-bow-firstrootsWhen the Jungle Gym Jam brought the house down last summer at Hillsborough, NJ Public Library and the rave reviews spread through the neighboring towns, Jennifer Esposito was paying attention. She reached out to me the next day and asked if I would perform at the grand opening of her new school location in Manville. I was happy to do the honors and even happier still that my daughter, now 4, would get to meet Frozen’s Queen Elsa at the event! My wife Amy, who co-writes lyrics with me, and our daughter, joined me on ukuleles for a performance of “Five Sea Lions.” A wonderful grand opening event and performance led to new ideas. And then Jennifer came up with something truly brilliant…

Jennifer had been learning by experience that the field of early childhood musical learning centers was a crowded one with lots of franchised regional and national programs that are delivered in a consistent way whether you’re in one location or another. She had been under such a franchise which wasn’t working for her way of doing business. So she went 100% independent, coming up with her own curriculum. It was a bold move, but Jennifer was missing a way of helping public easily understand what set her program apart.

Jennifer Esposito leading a First Roots music & movement activity at Hillsborough Public LibraryJennifer and I had a few back-and-forth discussions that lead to this breakthrough idea: Every semester of her school would feature the music of a working “kindie” band in the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. She’d give out CD’s and songbooks from that band at the start of the semester and she’d offer special music and movement activities centered around that band’s songs. Kids attending the class would hear a combination of recorded tracks by the featured band and Jennifer covering that band’s songs. Then at the end of that semester, the band would give a live, featured performance in her studio. Brilliant! This was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in an early childhood music learning center and a great distinction to offer the area’s kids & families.

I had the honor of being the first featured kindie artist over this semester that is now drawing to a close and, on Saturday afternoon March 14, I will give a performance at First Roots Music Studio.

More kindie artists will be featured over the coming semester, including Baze and His Silly Friends.

If your family lives in or around Manville, I’d love to see you there!

– Jason

The Infinite Varieties of Children’s Music

Here’s How to Thrive on Broadening Your Kids’ Cultural Horizons

By Jason Didner, kindie rock musician, children’s concert promoter

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam captivate the kids at Maxwell's Tavern in Hoboken, NJWhen you think of the term “children’s music,” what comes to mind?

Now I can’t speak for you but as a dad, I can tell you what used to come to my mind and what changed. Back when my daughter was about 1 year old (she’s now turning 4), my instincts on children’s music were to think of nursery rhyme songs, sung by groups of kids, or the soundtracks to PBS Kids and Disney Jr. shows. Of course, images of a certain purple dinosaur came to mind as well.

Thinking back on it, I must have been helping Holly develop her musical tastes on 2 different tracks – music my wife and I love like The Beatles (every Sunday morning), Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Van Halen, and then music we felt she should be learning to have a common understanding with other children, like the nursery rhyme songs.

At the time I had a hint that educational music for kids was out there that also rocked. My brother in Brooklyn had invited Amy and me to see Rolie Polie Guacamole perform Beatles songs along with their own quirky, funny kids’ songs at Stone House Park. Amy and I didn’t have children of our own at the time, but we were happy to accompany our baby niece on outings like this. My mom had sprung for a Rolie Polie Guacamole CD that we’d have handy when a child finally came into the picture. RPG turned out to be our first kindie concert. I wasn’t aware at the time that they were part of a movement; they existed in my mind as an isolated incident.

It must have occurred to me, having grown up on “Free to Be…You and Me” and “Schoolhouse Rock” that there were people making music all along since my childhood that helped tell stories and pass learning along to kids without patronizing them musically, and without annoying the grown-ups.

But as I became aware of some very unique and original music for kids and families, starting with Laurie Berkner and Justin Roberts, it soon dawned on me that kindie artists didn’t have to be limited by genre like more mainstream artists usually do. There are so many genre varieties in kindie: country, rap, hip hop, jazz, rock, punk, powerpop, funk and more. Often, an artist will create kindie songs in different genres all on one record – sometimes even over the course of one song!

Certain kindie artists come to mind who excel at a specific genre and sort of “own it.” For rap, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Mista Cookie Jar and the Alphabet Rockers come to mind right away. If you want rap where you never have to worry about profanity or messages glorifying poor life decisions, check these artists out. They share childhood joys, celebrate thinking outside the box and teach reading & math skills in rap –really, really good rap – rhythmically strong, with clever, intricate rhymes. We may want to cringe when we think about amateurish attempts to rap lessons for kids that come out more like rigid readings of simple poetry, but you’ve gotta hear the rap of these 3 artists, especially. And they often pop up on other artists’ records in very interesting collabs across genres.

In the world of kindie jazz, check out Jazzy Ash, whose ancestral home of New Orleans had a deep influence on her sound. Her lyrics teach about New Orleans culture and share childhood stories and experiences, all while keeping that festive Dixieland sound cookin’. Lori Henriques offers the sophisticated sounds of piano jazz while unleashing her inner joy so it may catch on with the families who are listening. Lucy Kalantari brings the sensibility of the Roaring ’20s to her happy-go-lucky song collection for the younger set.

If your taste is in punk, you’ll see your kids blow out a lot of energy dancing around to the stylings of The Boogers, Ratboy Jr. and The Not-its! There’s something about the energy of punk music that’s a natural fit with kids; I could just picture them bouncing around as if on pogo sticks, so I wrote “Jungle Gym Jamming” to that tempo to encourage lots of energetic movement.

Then there’s an artist like Joanie Leeds, who, over the course of one album will croon an original jazz number, give you a country hoedown, rock out with blistering intensity, share a sweet singer/songwriter ballad and help the kids get down with a heavy funk number.

Reggae and its uptempo sub-genre, ska, work particularly well in children’s music, creating a sunny, happy vibe that can carry a family through a day. It’s very popular as a color in many kindie artists’ palettes, used to great effect by Josh and the Jamtones, Yosi, Laurie Berkner and Rolie Polie Guacamole. My first Jungle Gym Jam song was a reggae number and after having seen Josh and the Jamtones in action, I was inspired to arrange another of my songs with a reggae/ska beat.

There’s so much to like in today’s kindie music that will open your children up to liking lots and lots of musical genres and songs created and produced from the artists’ heart to your family’s hearts, without being distorted by multinational entertainment conglomerates and focus groups. This is kindie. And as a dad, I love this stuff so much for my own kids that I’ve thrown myself into it professionally as well.

Comment below with your thoughts about the diversity of the kindie movement and all the genres it spans.

Would you like to get some free kindie music? Follow this link to get a free three-pack of kindie songs from my own Jungle Gym Jam project for your family’s enjoyment right now!

What a Blast at Maxwell’s in Hoboken!

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam bring a kindie song to a big ending at Maxwell's Tavern in Hoboken, NJ for kids & familiesWOW! What a way to spend a Monday afternoon!

My original inspiration to create the Hoboken concert series Maxwell’s Mini Music Mondays was my very uplifting experience performing at World Cafe Live in Wilmington, Delaware as part of the Peanut Butter & Jams concert series for kids and families. I felt like the surroundings of an honest-to-goodness performance space added to the anticipation of a full-blown rock concert made just for the young audience members. It felt like a real kindie music scene. And I wanted that for northern New Jersey.

So, now that there’s a scene connected with kindie artists and an audience hungry for what we do, I couldn’t wait to jump right in and give a performance for this crowd, now at this concert series’ 3-week mark. And for a band like ours that leans toward Jersey rock, influenced by Bruce Springsteen, how cool was it that we performed on the same stage where The Boss filmed the video for “Glory Days!”

Moms & kids dance to Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam at Maxwell's Tavern in Hoboken, NJThe moms and kids were all smiles as we launched into our favorite opening song “Your Happy Place.” We got playful and interactive during our next song “Little Yellow Plane,” all about the aircraft that carries a banner for all the beachgoers to see. It was like a little Jersey Shore beach party on a frigid afternoon.

Jason Didner from the Jungle Gym Jam leads the kids through a game of "There's a Big Wave!" that his daughter Holly made up.The kids were stretching out their arms to look like airplanes. We also battled some imaginary ocean waves (credit to my daughter Holly for inventing this game!) Plenty of kids were situated on the carpet squares in front of the stage by the time we got to “Five Sea Lions” where they counted down with me as the playful creatures in the song dove into the water. The kids also did the rolling and swimming motions with their hands. We formed a human train in “Window of the Train” and the kids helped me figure out that my cute red insect puppet with black spots wasn’t really a bumble bee. Well, you learn something new every day…

The kids form a big front line in front of the dance area at Jason Didner & the Jungle Gym Jam's performance at Maxwell's Tavern in Hoboken, NJBy the time we reached our encore with “Down By the Bay” there was a line of kids across the very front of the dance floor, perfect for high-fiving at the conclusion of the song. Giving kids their first taste of a rock concert was a special thrill for me, especially seeing what a positive experience it was.

Maxwell’s concert promoter Dave Entwistle was on-hand to run sound, with his awesome 2-year-old by his side (and sleeping in his arms for part of the time). Little Ben was quite helpful in putting on the show as he reached into my box of carpet squares and followed my lead in placing them out on the floor before the show. My daughter Holly also found new ways to be helpful, like directing other kids’ moms to where they could pick up the free Big Apple Circus clown noses for their kids that I had just put out. It made me proud to see her make new friends of kids she had never met before. It’s a really nice group of kids & families that are coming out to these events.

Heather from Hoboken Mommies was on hand along with her daughter, taking pictures and sharing them socially to the group’s popular Facebook page. One little rock-n-roller brought along his green guitar and took it out of his little green gig bag, ready to rock along with the band! We gave away an “Everyone’s Invited!” CD and a pair of tickets to the Big Apple Circus’ opening night on its Bridgewater, New Jersey stand this Thursday, 2/26.

Next Monday I return to my role of concert promoter (and add sound engineer to my job description) and watch the performances of my very talented friends in the field of rock and jazz for kids & families. On Monday, March 2 my friend and mentor Marc “Baze” Bazerman takes the stage with his group Baze and His Silly Friends. Baze is producing my upcoming album and he’s eliciting vocal performances from me that have caused me to surprise myself in all the best ways.

I’m very excited not just for the artists scheduled to play in the weeks ahead, but also for the families who get to experience the fullness of the kindie music movement and get their kids exposed to a variety of styles, ideas, stories and lessons created lovingly to enrich their young lives.

Maxwell's Mini Music MondaysIf you’d like to keep up with the happenings at this concert series, make sure to like the Maxwell’s Mini Music Mondays page Facebook!

Check out our spring lineup at Maxwell’s Mini Music Mondays here and get early bird pricing on tickets (through the Friday before each Monday concert).

Download a 3-pack of my songs and get special offers and bulletins related to my upcoming performances and new family-friendly creations.