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Seed funding of $5-million from Thomson family will help institution create apps to educate children during their formative years.John Woods/The Globe and Mail

The Royal Conservatory of Music is launching a major initiative to spread online learning in music to young children across Canada, backed by $5-million in seed funding donated by the Thomson family.

The Conservatory will plunge into the competitive world of digital education apps and online learning, creating tools that could help parents and teachers immerse tens of thousands of children in music during their formative years, helping develop their brains and abilities even before they start school.

The initiative and the donation were announced Friday with a demonstration of dancing, singing and drumming by preschool children at Pinkham School in Winnipeg, and come at a moment when public schools across Canada have cut back on music education, despite growing evidence of its benefits. The new digital resources for early childhood music will be the first phase in a larger strategy to broadcast the institution's expertise and curricula to computers and tablets in homes around the country and worldwide.

"It's transformational as a gift because it allows us the resources to embark on a direction that is really important, not only to us but we think to Canada," said Peter Simon, president of the Royal Conservatory. "Our intention is to build on this gift."

David, Peter and Taylor Thomson have named the new Marilyn Thomson Early Childhood Education Centre in honour of their mother, who is an alumnus and former board member of the Conservatory. It aims to help parents inspire their children with music before they turn 6. The online tools, soon to be developed from the Conservatory's existing Smart Start program, will be subscription-based.

The cost has yet to be determined, but vice-president of academics Angela Elster said it will be kept low so it is not prohibitive to young families; she said she hopes early childhood educators will help spread the resources to underprivileged children. The Conservatory plans to have 50,000 subscribers within five years, pouring any profits back into its programs.

"[We are] placing, as much as we can, our faith, our confidence in the Royal Conservatory to join with kindred spirits around Canada and beyond, and to bring to young minds the potential to live lives that are able to transcend even expectations of parents and professionals," David Thomson said at the announcement.

Mr. Thomson is chairman of The Woodbridge Co., which owns 85 per cent of The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Elster said children are "fully open to learning" in their first few years, and many of them may be heading for schools where music is no longer considered a priority. Only 44 per cent of Ontario elementary schools have a specialist music teacher on staff, down from 58 per cent in 1998, according to the advocacy group People for Education.

The Conservatory will also digitize its 60-hour, in-person certification program for music teachers so it can be earned from anywhere. And part of the Thomsons' gift ensures the Smart Start program will be supported in 16 nursery classes across eight schools in the Winnipeg School Division, which has a large proportion of aboriginal students.

A growing body of neuroscience research strongly suggests that involvement in music can improve cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, language and emotional intelligence. For infants, the initiative will create videos instructing parents in activities to help their child start grasping musical concepts, like lifting them high in the air as a melody rises, then dipping them low as it falls. From age 3 onward, children will be able to play interactive games that ask them to tap out rhythms on a tablet, or sing at a particular pitch, earning rewards when they get it right.

"It seems pretty clear that music education does have a beneficial effect on, especially, the developing mind," said Sean Hutchins, postdoctoral fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Toronto's Baycrest Hospital, who will study Conservatory students' development.

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