Rhythm for Children

Stop. Listen. What do you hear? In this blog post, Mental Health Services Program Supervisor, Bob Nickles shares how anyone can use rhythm and mindfulness to improve their listening game, especially with children.

Listening and Mindfulness

Humans make noises constantly. When someone enters the room, we know. When someone changes their breathing, we know. These sounds surround us every day, although we may not attend to them. Practicing awareness of these small noises benefits us in two ways:

  • it directs our brain to attend to the present moment
  • and it helps us become better parents, caregivers, or mentors to children.

Researchers at UCLA[1], Harvard[2], the University of Massachusetts[3], and the University of Washington[4] have heavily investigated mindfulness. Mindfulness is the quality of paying attention in the present moment. Mindfulness means not worrying about the future or about the past, and noticing what happens right now instead.

We can practice mindfulness in two ways: focused attention or general attention. Focused attention can happen in two directions:

  • attending to something outside of ourselves
  • or attending to something inside ourselves, like a feeling or a sensation.

Being Present

Let’s try it! Start with general awareness: turn off your vision by closing your eyes, and let your other senses explore what happens around you. You may notice what rests against your skin. Those surfaces all have texture and temperature. You may notice smells in your nose or tastes left in your mouth. Moreover, you will certainly hear things. The present moment is always changing, which means we always have more to notice.

Now try focused attention. Bring your attention just to the sounds in this present moment. Do those sounds contain any patterns? Air vents blow air, cars rush past outside, feet walk across the floor. You can focus your attention even more by listening to your finger tap against your leg. What does that sound like? How about the sound of one finger brushing across the back of your hand? Can you blink loud enough to hear your eyelid snapping shut and open?

This kind of mindful attention helps us connect with each other. While growing in the womb, children use their mother’s heartbeat to regulate and stabilize their own heartbeats. Parents of newborns find themselves singing and rocking children. Both actions are profoundly soothing to children. Even with older children and adolescents, rhythm and noise-making help us feel connected.

Practicing Mindfulness

Let’s try it! Practice call-and-response with another person. See if you can sing a phrase of, “la-ti-da’s” that they can repeat, and vice-versa. If you interact with young children, practice serve-and-return.  This is the pattern of a child asking us for our attention and sharing what interests them. When a child “serves” this initiation, adults can prolong the period of shared attention with a “return.” Meaning, lending their own attention to the child.[5]

There are, perhaps, thousands of games and songs based on call-and-response and serve-and-return patterns. You probably know a few. If you don’t, try making clap or stomp patterns and see if someone can repeat them accurately. Then let them take a turn. Children are wonderfully inventive and can make a game out of anything.

When we try this in our therapy groups or in family therapy sessions, three important elements usually emerge:

  • Attending – children feel special when an adult is paying attention to them in a non-punitive, non-instructional manner. Adults feel special, too! Taking turns listening to someone’s beat or melody parallels the turn-taking and listening needed in all kinds of social situations.
  • Joining – doing the same thing at the same time creates a sense of belonging. Finding a shared beat or chant that you can sing or stomp as a refrain will help you and your rhythm partner feel connected. Camp songs such as “Down By the Bay, “My name is ___ and I’m here to say, I like ___ in a major way” use this technique. Some individuals and families find this to be natural and enjoyable, and some people need time to get used to this. However, all of us need it.
  • Challenging – all of us want to achieve something, and most adults want their children to achieve things. Therefore, we challenge ourselves and others. Too much challenge can be overwhelming, but so is boredom. Finding the right amount of challenge requires a do-able but not frustrating task. Simple beats or melodies can become more challenging when you add speed. Quick, complex melodies can be slowed down, phrased in familiar words, or simplified into beats with no musical tone. Find the right kind of task for your rhythm partner, and then let him or her find ways to challenge you.

This rich mix of rhythm, attention, belonging, and challenge also triggers a key learning process for young children: repetition. Adults will tire of interactions long before young children do! Your gentle willingness to stay with them in the repetition will help their minds develop.

For older children and adolescents, listening may mean watching YouTube. It may require a lot of trust for teens to show adults (especially parents) the videos and music they are listening to, but a thoughtful serve-and-return response from an adult will go a long way towards helping them develop their own identity. If you want to address language or mature content within the music, save that thought until the end of your conversation, when your wisdom will be most effective.

Lastly, adults may forget what children can teach us – especially if the adults are also carrying the burden of full-time caregiving. Slow down. Listen. When we spend time with children, we usually learn something new– if we’re listening.


Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Dell.

Siegel, D. J. (2007a). Mindfulness training and neural integration: Differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of wellbeing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 259 –263. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsm034

[1] https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations

[2] https://wellness.huhs.harvard.edu/Mindfulness

[3] https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm

[4] https://depts.washington.edu/ccfwb/content/mindful-living-and-practice

[5] Harvard Center for the Developing Child, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/

Bob Nickles is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and actor. He was born in South Carolina and has been moving around ever since. Bob lives on the Northside of Richmond and hails most recently from St. Louis. ChildSavers welcomed Bob to the Mental Health team in 2015 and recently, he became the Program Supervisor for ChildSavers and Greater Richmond SCAN’s Richmond Public Schools Resiliency Partnership. Bob will lead the delivery of clinical services within Richmond’s East End schools and supervise the mental health team.

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