Music and your toddler or preschooler (ages 1 to 3)
How can listening to music benefit my child?
Toddlers and preschoolers have lots to gain from listening to music. It’s fun, for one thing, and it also encourages movement, which is important for young children who are perfecting their motor skills. “Kids learn through movement,” says Rosalie Pratt, a professor of music medicine at Brigham Young University.
“When you see them at play, they’re not talking, they’re moving. This is how they pick things up.” Music helps you bond with your child, too. It’ll move you to dance a jig or belt out a tune, much to the thrill of your little one. Imagine the joy you’ll share swaying to the beat of a lovely melody (try Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”). Or how much fun he’ll have jumping with you in an energetic musical number (“The Chicken Dance” will leave you rolling on the floor with laughter).
Some experts go so far as to say that exposure to music makes children smarter, but hardly any data exists to validate this point. “The science is in its infancy,” says Gordon Shaw, a physics professor and neuroscientist who studies music and brain development at the University of California at Irvine.
Is one type of music best for my toddler?
Let your child listen to whatever he likes, says Pratt. Try out your favorites, or classical music (the old standby), or spice things up with Brazilian or African tunes. Anything with a good melody will do, although slow songs may work best for bedtime and fast ones for play. In the morning, play classical music (choose something pleasant and happy, such as a tinkly piano concerto from Chopin or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”) so he’ll wake up in a light and upbeat mood. Older kids may also enjoy a song that has a narrative they can follow, such as “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” or “Miss Mary Mack.” Encourage your toddler or preschooler to move to the music and express his emotions.
When it comes to playing tunes for your kids, think cheerful and simple. You may want to stay away from head-banging rock, grunge music, or rap. Animal studies show that constant exposure to chaotic, discordant music alters the brain’s structure, says Pratt. Even plants seem to abhor this type of music, she argues. Ivy growing on a home where classical music was played all day long flourished better than that on houses where occupants blasted hard rock. Your musical selections don’t have to be recorded ones, either. Break out into song once in a while. Tongue-twisting tunes, such as “The Name Game” (“Nina, Nina, bo-bina, banana, fana, fofina, mee-mi-momina, Nina) are fun. Learn entire ditties as a family, and sing them on car trips or on gloomy days when you’re stuck at home.
Can learning how to play an instrument benefit my child?
Yes, if he’s at least 3 years old. That’s when his brain circuits for music training begin to mature. And studies suggest that music lessons can increase brain power. One University of California at Irvine study shows that 3- and 4-year-olds who took piano lessons performed better on tests that measured their spatial-temporal reasoning (ability to to think in space and time) than those who didn’t.
Study author Gordon Shaw says these kids may be able to learn complex math problems earlier than others who’ve had no musical training. The piano is a good instrument to start with, he adds, because kids don’t have to master any special fingering, as they would with a guitar, violin, or other stringed instrument. Plus, the linear progression of the keys helps make the concept of music scales concrete. Yet another study suggests that music lessons sharpen the mind, but it looked only at older children.
Scientists at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, whose research was published in the journal Nature in 1998, say kids who have at least six years of music lessons before the age of 12 learn more words than those who go without. Researchers read 16-word lists three times to 60 girls. Those who had studied music for six years remembered more words than those who hadn’t.
Martin Gardiner of the Music School in Providence, Rhode Island, examined the effect of music and art lessons on a group of 5- to 7-year-olds who were considered “underperformers.” According to the magazine The Economist, after seven months of lessons, they were tested on reading, writing, and math and found to have caught up with their peers in reading and writing, and surpassed them in math.