Get Up & Dance: Music & Movement

There are so many things to think about (read: worry about?!) with young kids: Language development, social and emotional intelligence, executive functioning, creative abilities and freedom of expression—the list goes on. Gross and fine motor skills are one of these super important developmental markers, and they start kicking in right away: from a baby lifting their head, to rolling over, to crawling, all the way to riding a bicycle, playing the piano, and filling in a bubble on a standardized test. Children grow into many of these organically; however, there are specific ways that you as a parent can facilitate and support their advancement using—you guessed it!—music.

In a review article published in Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience in which music was evaluated as a therapy for both typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorder, the research shows that music improves both fine and gross motor skills.

Educational approaches that combine movement and music have proved to have a beneficial impact on gross motor skills. According to that same review article, four- to six-year-olds who did a music and movement program for two months improved their jumping and balance, compared to children who did not do the program. Similarly, children who did a 10-week Dalcroze (an educational technique that incorporates movement into music education) music and movement class “outperformed children who received a general movement exploration program on the various custom-developed, perceptuo-motor skills [the movement of a limb in response to a perception; for example, reaching for an object that is in view], and creative movement activities.”

When it comes to fine motor skills, children who took piano lessons for at least two years improved fine motor skills such as response speed, visuo-motor control (when vision and movement work together such as in placing fingers on the right keys on a piano), and upper limb speed and dexterity, compared to children who did not take piano lessons. In fact, these improvements in fine motor skills correlated directly to the duration of the lessons: the longer the children took lessons, the more these skills improved.

Music has also been shown to support motor skills in children with dyslexia as well as adults with motor-impairing diseases such as Parkinson’s. In a 2008 study, children with dyslexia who did exercises and games that used clapping and percussion appeared to improve their movement timing, which has been linked to the ability to work with sounds in spoken language, and to reading—both of which dyslexic children struggle with. With to adults with Parkinson’s disease, research shows that embodied music therapies, such as dancing, can improve balance, gait patterns and movement control.

Anyone who has ever picked up a guitar probably remembers the first time they tried to make a chord—and then make a different chord. It’s super hard! But as you keep doing it, as you keep forcing your fingers to stretch and bend in those initially uncomfortable ways, eventually your fingers “learn” the movements and relax into them, giving you—whether you’re five years old or forty-five—a virtuous circle of benefits and skills: as you gain dexterity, your self-confidence is also boosted, your ability to connect and bond with others using music improves, and you have an expanded capacity to stay grounded and calm as well as more opportunities to express your unique self.