Last week, we kicked off our Monday blog series about child development and music learning with a post about the developmental milestones that make the average 5 year-old ready to start lessons, as well as their typical abilities and limitations. This week, we’re looking at what makes the average 6 year-old learner tick, the new skills they are acquiring, and the limitations they still have at this stage.
In previous posts, I have stressed that the developmental milestones being described are typical, but that each child is unique and will learn and develop at their own pace. At age 6, this is especially true, and it’s an excellent time to expose your child to as much as possible, because the pace of a 6 year-old’s development is highly influenced by what they’re exposed to. This is an age where learning can really take off, depending on the experiences a child can access.
How Your 6-year Old Learns and How This Plays Out In Music Lessons:
– Curiosity: 6 year-olds are highly curious and start to become insatiable learners, especially as they start school. They especially crave and benefit from immediate, hands-on exploration. As they begin learning an instrument, they are full of questions about what their instrument is made of, why it looks like it does, what kinds of sounds it can make, what other instruments there are, and so on.
– Structure: Much as with 5 year-olds, your 6 year-old wants to exert more independence in their day-to-day activities (dressing themselves, brushing their teeth, choosing food, etc.), but they still want and need structure. Their independence will depend heavily on having a base of safe adults and family to work from. They are likely to check-in with adults more often about whether they are doing things correctly. They want frequent feedback and assurance that they are competent. In lessons, they may begin watching their teacher’s face intently for approval as they play, or frequently ask their parent or teacher, “Am I doing it right?”
– Focus: This is an age where you may see a large increase in your child’s ability to focus for longer periods of time on a task. They may be able to begin to practice for longer periods of time at this stage, especially with the encouragement of an adult. As with 5 year-olds, establishing the regular habit of practicing is more important at this age than enforcing a certain number of minutes for daily practice. At age 6, however, you may be able to encourage your child to practice their song just one more time, or to practice for just five more minutes.
– Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Development of all kinds (cognitive, physical, emotional, etc.) can be very uneven at this age. You may see some areas of great improvement, for example, your child’s ability to emotionally regulate themselves paired with sudden regressions, like throwing tantrums. Your child may exhibit improved self-awareness and more appropriate behavior at recitals and performances, but then surprise you by whining or pouting when they’re asked to practice before they can go outside and play. They may suddenly be eager to practice and diligently track how many days they practiced this week, but then seem to display very poor motor skills and to be “all thumbs” on their instrument. These ups and downs are very normal, so don’t be discouraged if your child seems to alternately gain and lose progress on their instrument or in their ability to practice or focus or complete homework at this age.
– Motor Coordination: As with all areas of learning, 6 year-olds are capable of making great leaps in motor coordination, depending on how much these motor skills are exercised. They may be able to use their fingers more independently, better differentiate between left and right, have more control over their own strength, and have better control over their limbs. Learning an instrument at this age can do wonders for fine motor skills!
– Musical Skills: Certain crucial music skills begin to develop at the age of 6, again, depending heavily on how much music your child is exposed to. At this age, your child is able to remember melodies and lyrics much more accurately, and can remember and sing many more songs than when they were younger. They can begin to accurately play simple songs on their instrument from memory. They are also able to begin playing and singing more expressively, and can communicate basic emotions, such as happiness, sadness or anger in a song. 6 year-olds also develop greatly improved beat competency, which simply refers to the ability to feel, count, and play a steady beat. They are also beginning to connect areas of learning with each other and will find these connections very satisfying. For example, they can connect the math skills they are acquiring with counting beats, or learning about another culture with music that is representative of that culture. Because they are quickly developing their reading skills, they may especially enjoy being able to read the instructions in their lesson book or the words that go along with a song they are learning.
– Social and Emotional Development: 6 year-olds often develop a love of showing off! They often overestimate their skill at sports, music, art, etc. and want to display their talents whenever possible for the world to see. When family or friends visit, they may run for their instrument to play the latest song they’ve mastered (even if it’s not quite mastered yet). They may need your help in knowing when it is appropriate to do this. Interestingly, though they want to show off and believe they’re great at everything they do, they can also be very sensitive to criticism and failure. Their confidence in their abilities is high, but it’s also fragile. It is important to strike a balance between helping your 6 year-old develop a realistic assessment of their skills and ensuring that you nurture and build their confidence, so that they remain unafraid to try activities that can accelerate their learning.
We hope this insight will help you set appropriate expectations for your 6 year-old music student. Remember to provide them with as many varied, hands-on musical experiences as possible since their learning and development at this stage are highly dependent on exposure, and help them follow through on practicing, working through a difficult song or finishing homework. They may lack the discipline to do this independently, but will value their achievements when you help them complete their goals.
We’ll see you here next Monday for the next post in the series, looking at the next stage of development.
And remember, if you’re part of a music (or other) educators’ group, music therapy group, or other organization related to child development and education we love speaking to groups on this and other topics related to children and music! As board-certified music therapists, we (Allison J. Boyd, MT-BC and Sara R. Guinn, M.M.Ed, MT-BC) love developing talks and workshops on these subjects and would love to come speak at your organization. Interested? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara R. Longwell, M.M.Ed, MT-BC
Community Relations Manager & Music Therapy Specialist