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Smashing Munchkin

Sam Steele, Creative at FRUKT London, looks at whether a good sense of rhythm can help children's mental development.

When I was younger, I always wanted to be a drummer. Unfortunately, I had neither the levels of coordination nor the concentration span to overcome my initial frustration at not being able to do it immediately.

When I was at home over Christmas, however, it came to my attention that there may be hope for a drummer in the family yet – my 18-month-old niece, Zoe. As we sat eating dinner on the night I returned to Devon, I watched, awestruck, as she tapped along in perfect time to all manner of songs that the rest of my family sang to her. I couldn’t believe it, and over the coming days I coerced her with xylophones, tambourines, bongos – any form of percussion I could get my hands on, really.

A few days later, I returned to London, and found myself watching an episode of The Simpsons after the journey. Nothing remarkable about that, except that this was the story of how Lisa got her saxophone. During the episode, Homer asks for a sign that a musical instrument may be the perfect way to encourage a gifted child – and, sure enough, one appears. A sign in a music store window, stating “A musical instrument, the perfect way to encourage a gifted child”.

This, too, got me thinking.

The benefits of musical training in children have long been asserted, Miendlarzewska and Trost published an article on this very subject for Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2014. They claimed that children who undergo musical training have better verbal memory, second language pronunciation accuracy, reading ability and executive functions. On top of this, they surmised that learning to play an instrument as a child may even predict academic performance and IQ in young adulthood.

I decided to ask my in-house expert.

Speaking to my mum (a Montessori school principal for over 25 years) about the rhythmic ability of her only grandchild, she suggested Zoe’s capacity for tapping out beats may well be an early sign of cognitive brilliance. And, as it happens, we weren’t the first people to consider this. Researchers at Umea University in Sweden conducted a study in 2008 entitled ‘Correlations between intelligence and components of serial timing variability’ (which you can find here, if you’re interested). It concluded that volunteers with the best sense of rhythm – keeping time with a drumstick before taking intelligence tests – also scored highest in the mental assessments.

A correlation, sure, but enough to declare to my sister-in-law that her child is, in fact, a genius?

Maybe, but she doesn’t need that pressure.

I’ll just continue to be fascinated by her natural ability to do something, at 18 months, that makes her, and the rest of the family, so happy.


Now, I need to work out how I can encourage this gift, without forcing it. Aside from the basket-full of musical instruments, what else could help her explore her talent?

As much as I’d do this just to see the look on my brother’s face, I’m not sure buying Zoe a drum kit is the way to go just yet. So if not physically, then perhaps digitally?

I’m not a parent, so categorically am allowed no opinion on the iPad as a parenting tool. But as a learning tool, why not? Even for kids as young as Zoe, there are apps out there designed to encourage and nurture children’s rhythmic ability.

Take Loopimal, for example.

As the name alludes to, it’s a loop pedal for kids, and it’s done in a way that throws formal musical training out of the window. There’s no right or wrong, which they’re keen to point out, but it allows kids (and I’m sure, as soon as I get my hands on it, grown-ups) to create their own musical sequences. It uses characters and shapes, rather than notes, allowing kids to create an array of aurally (and visually) engaging sequences with up to four simultaneous loops. And, at only £2.49 on iOS, it’s a low-cost option for kick-starting Zoe’s musical career

Or, if a familiar face might be the catalyst for Zoe’s musical career, there’s Sesame Street Makes Music.

With Cookie Monster, Elmo and friends there to guide kids through, there’s an array of nursery rhymes to get to grips with. It also taps into how tempo affects songs, and uses a variety of instruments to familiarise kids with all kinds of sound. And, much like Loopimal, it’s only £2.20 on iOS – so it’s good value too.

Stepping away from the iPad, and looking more into structured learning materials, there’s one standout book on the market in this field. Frustrated at the lack of material available for teaching the youngest percussionists, Andy Ziker has written Drumset for Preschoolers (available here, and elsewhere).

Colour-coded, and tailored to allow for kids’ attention spans, the book helps teach children 2-7 the basics of drumming – providing a platform to build from in the future. And, as much as you can never trust reviews, 24/25 5* reviews on Amazon US, with the other being a 4* critique, isn’t bad going. It does require a drum kit though – which, as previously mentioned, is something I can’t quite bring myself to do just yet.

So what next?

The challenge here is that, of course, every child is different.

Temperament, concentration levels, time elapsed since their last nap… all have a part to play in the learning process. What I’m truly searching for, but seem unable to find, is a light up, play-along, progressive drum kit. Something that can take a child with a talent and keep teaching them as they grow.

The closest thing I’ve found so far her been the VTech KidiBeats – which offers an entry-level solution.

Also teaching letters and numbers, it’s a multipurpose toy based around drumming for learning, rather than a drum teaching tool. It does offer a follow-along mode, but only at a very basic pace that (in my obviously biased opinion as a doting uncle) may not keep Zoe entertained for long.

Oh well, drum kit it is…