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Two and a half year old Aniese Cole (C) holds hands with her mom (R) and another classmate's parent while taking part in the Royal Conservatory's Smart Start program. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Two and a half year old Aniese Cole (C) holds hands with her mom (R) and another classmate's parent while taking part in the Royal Conservatory's Smart Start program. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

How Canada’s Royal Conservatory uses tech to teach brain-boosting music lessons to kids Add to ...

If you want your toddler to listen, Dr. Laurel Trainor’s research suggests trying this useful, no-cost tip: Put on some music and bounce them to the beat. In Trainor’s experiment at her McMaster University lab in Hamilton, she had parents bounce their kids while music played, and while someone also bounced in front of them, either with the music or out of sync with the rhythm. The young subjects were then put in a position where the stranger dropped a pencil, and waited to see if they would help. The kids who had been bounced in time were significantly more likely to retrieve the pencil.

Trainor, a psychology professor, consults with the Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music, which is using findings like this to develop a new digital app designed to help parents get more cognitive benefits out of the songs they sing with their babies. The app, called Smart Start, and due out in August, is part of the RCM’s digital strategy, designed to expand access to music to lower-income and remote areas, at a time when school-based music programs are threatened by budget cuts.

But unlike the days of baby Mozart – a now debunked trend in which new parents were encouraged to plunk their infants within earshot of classical music to boost their IQ – the RCM is relying on the findings of researchers such as Trainor, and the work being done in the conservatory’s unique on-site neuroscience lab. The problem with baby Mozart was that it was passive. The cognitive and social benefits of music, explains Dr. Sean Hutchins, director of research at the RCM, come from actually interacting and creating music.

That’s where digital tools are a game-changer, especially for schools – and kids – without access to well-supplied band rooms and expert music teachers.

The Smart Start app is based on interactive music classes that the Royal Conservatory began offering in 2015, with curriculum developed by its Marilyn Thomson Early Childhood Education Centre. When researchers tracked about 100 participants over the first year of the program, they found improvements in areas such as vocabulary and prereading skills beyond what would be expected from standardized tests.

“Music is a complicated type of system, with all kinds of cognitive skills, linguistic skills and social cues going into it,” says Hutchins. “It brings together all of that complexity, and the mind tries to make sense of it, like a puzzle.”

The hope, says Meghan Moore, vice-president of business development at the Royal Conservatory, is that digital apps can close the “experience gap” faced by kids from lower-income families with less access to early music lessons. The app will have 12 songs, with simple directions for the parents to sing and teach their children – often proposing, Moore says, “small tweaks” to what many parents may already be doing. Even young babies, says Moore, will “light up when we sing their favourite song.” Since music has been found to promote skills such as memory and perception, “the earlier you get kids in,” Moore says, “the better.”

Another way that music promotes development is by creating “surprises” that spark brain activity. For instance, one song in the RCM program ends with the parent lifting their child into the air; once their baby knows the song, parents are advised to wait several beats before doing the lift to create a sense of delayed gratification. “When you listen to music it sets up an expectation for what is going to come next,” says Trainor. “Your brain, whatever age you are, is constantly trying to predict the future.” Adjusting to something unexpected – a change in rhythm, a new sound or a finale lift that comes a few beats late – is a learning opportunity for the brain.

Previous experiments have found that when adults march or dance in sync, they are also more likely to co-operate in games or act altruistically toward one another – a finding Trainor wanted to test on toddlers. It’s a small-scale study, but the science makes the case for whistling while you work. “Most parents don’t realize how powerful music is,” says Trainor. Reducing tantrums at cleanup time is one perk. “It also has really long-term benefits. If you have a child who is more socially engaged and co-operative, they are going to learn more.”

The Royal Conservatory is also developing – and testing – programs for schools that integrate the arts into subjects such as social studies and science, even math. A trial of one program in which artists taught lessons to indigenous students in Fort McMurray, Alta., produced a spike in math and language scores. Teachers in places such as Calgary and Toronto have also received training to incorporate creative work such as video or drama into classrooms, using an approach that the technology industry calls design thinking. Rather than being told the answer, students are encouraged to pose questions to problems and produce their own solutions. For instance, in St. Catharines, Ont., Grade 9 students were asked to identify a social problem they cared about, study it, and come up with a way to solve it – in one example, a group of students, exploring the causes of anxiety in their peers, designed a calendar app that helped teachers space out major assignments.

The idea, says Shaun Elder, the executive director of the RCM’s Learning Through the Arts initiative, is to “make students aware of what they already know, and what they think the problem is about.” The creative process, he says, naturally fosters teamwork and encourages risk-taking. After all, he points out, artists are always testing new ideas, inventing work from scratch and trying to understand their environment, or their audience.

Students, says Peter Simon, the Royal Conservatory’s president, “need to be given a chance to consider things that don’t exist,” rather than only memorizing facts. When it comes to the benefits of engaging in music and the arts, “there is no questioning the science,” he says. “And yet, ironically, this comes at a time when fewer students have the benefit of access to music studies.” And when, he adds, the economy most needs graduates whose brains have been primed to innovate, and are ready to collaborate.

It may start as early, research would suggest, as bouncing with your baby to the same beat.

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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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