Friday, May 8, 2015

Music and potty training

"Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents." --Ludwig van Beethoven
Warning: This blog post contains a lot of ear worms.

Recently I've been particularly into toilet training songs. If you don't have a 2 year old (or spend much time around one) this is probably a foreign world to you, so here are a couple highlights to get you in the mood:



Okay, so as a 25 year old maybe humming potty training songs to myself at the bus stop is possibly a bit odd. But they're catchy! And this is the point.

I have always remembered things best in songs and verse. From the alphabet, to my eights time tables to how to be a good friend, a lot of my education has been shaped by songs. They may not be high art, but they're fun. In "Music and Learning: Integrating Music into the Classroom" Chris Boyd Brewer writes:

"Music helps us learn because it will--
  • establish a positive learning state
  • create a desired atmosphere
  • build a sense of anticipation
  • energize learning activities
  • change brain wave states
  • focus concentration
  • increase attention
  • improve memory
  • facilitate a multisensory learning experience
  • release tension
  • enhance imagination
  • align groups
  • develop rapport
  • provide inspiration and motivation
  • add an element of fun
  • accentuate theme-oriented units
(Article source:

At some point in our education music (and fun in general) stop being a generally accepted part of the experience. As grown ups we're expected to be able to learn and do things because we know we should, without having to go through the extra step of making them creative and fun. While it's a useful skill to be able to sit still and study even when you don't want to, I think it's the wrong approach. As I continue to think about and refine where I want to go with my research and studies the question of 'how could we make this as fun and interesting as we would for kids, but in a non-patronizing way?' keeps coming to my mind (This goes for all adult education... not just toilet behaviors... how much more awesome would any office job be if you started the morning with musical circle time?)

Combatting open defecation: The first Bollywood Poo Music Video 

The closest thing I know to an adult version of a potty training song is this musical Public Service Announcement produced in India in 2013. This song was written by Shiri, whose other credits include the theme song for the Life of Pi, so we're talking seriously professional shit here:


The Take the Poo to the Loo campaign was launched by Unicef to address the fact that 45% of India's population practices open deification, collectively producing 65 million kilos of poo each day (for perspective: if an average elephant weighs 5000kg that's 13,000 elephants!)

Sadly there isn't much analysis publicly available for this video or what sort of reach and affect it had. How many people, as a result of having "take the poo to the loo-oo-oo" running through their heads made a point of avoiding open defecation?

It's not a perfectly parallel comparison in any case to the children's potty training. The steps aren't quite as clear or as simple. The aim is behavioral change on a much larger societal level. Toilet training of young children is generally focused at normalizing them into a society that can already provide them with the tools they need to accomplish the task (a potty, toilet paper, a sink to wash their hands.) For the target audience of this video there's likely a more complex chain of steps required. It's more like if you asked your child not only to start using the potty, but also to finance the purchase of a potty chair, and install it in your home. A combination of marketing playing on emotions of shame and aspiration.

Change begins at home

The bollywood video is tangentially related to Theatre for Development (TfD) which featured heavily on my Applied Theatre MA course. Most academics would probably argue it doesn't fall under that umbrella because a) it's not live performance and b) it's not participatory, but that's arguing apples and oranges. Whatever you want to call it it's a piece of art used to create dialogue and affect behavioral change.

One ethical issue I have always taken slightly with a lot of TfD work is the fact that despite the best efforts of well-meaning practitioners it tends to be an attempt at westernization. Even under the guise of a bottom-up participant-lead approach there is an element of 'our way is better' leading towards certain conclusions. You can see slight hints of that in the music video: the toilet that all the dancing poos get flushed down in the end: it's a decidedly western design: in fact you could go so far as to say it is a strong symbol of the age of British imperialism. The seat with cistern, lid and flush pull chain, which evolved from the likes of Alexander Cummings, George Jennings and Thomas Crapper, is still, 150 years later, a symbol of the height of sanitary technology, but not in fact the most practical or ecological solution.

We're getting to a point where it's not a great solution in California either. While we thankfully aren't dying from diarrhea and other fecally transmitted diseases on a daily basis we certainly haven't got the toilet thing figured out in San Francisco. In the midst of the worst drought we've ever experienced we're still flushing 1/3 of our drinking water down the loo because that's what we're used to. Someone said to me once (and I paraphrase) "One of the problems in developing countries is people want what they see as a luxury item... not some second-best solution. If Obama would install a composting toilet in the White house then everyone would want one of those instead."

So perhaps by focusing more of our energies closer to home we'd have a larger knock-on effect than we might at first realize. A challenge to people who are more musically/lyrically inclined than I am: how do we introduce water saving behaviors in song and dance?

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