Take a moment and think of all the ways we interact rhythmically with children. We rock. We bounce. We dance. We walk. It seems the developmental benefits of this intuitive, simple play may extend farther then we thought.
Researchers at McMaster University conducted a series of studies to test the effect of interpersonal motor synchrony on prosocial behaviors in children. Prosocial behaviors were measured as the child's willingness to help the experimenter who had "accidentally" dropped an object. Motor synchrony involved the toddler being bounced either in time (synchronously) or out of time (asynchronously) with the experimenter.
The researchers found that even after that short amount of time, the children who watched the experimenter bouncing in synchrony were more likely to help the experimenter — especially spontaneously — than those in the asynchronous condition.
In a second experiment, the researchers tested whether the effect changed if the experimenter synchronously bounced in the same phase as the child or not. In the "in-phase" condition, the experimenter would move up and down at the time as the toddler. The opposite happened in the "anti-phase" condition — the experimenter would move up as the child moved down and vice versa. The researchers reported a slight increase in prosocial "helping" behaviors in the anti-phase condition.
But what does this mean? Overall, the researchers concluded that not only does motor synchrony influence the development of prosocial behaviors in children, but it's the predictable, rhythmic oscillations underlying the motor synchrony that seem to direct the effect, not the symmetry of the movement itself.
Stated differently, engaging in a rhythmic, synchronous movement activity with another person made the toddlers more altruistic.
The entrainment effect of rhythm on our motor output continues to be supported. It is witnessed anecdotally when one is walking down the street, "hearing" a song in his or her head, and realizes he or she is walking in time to the beat. On a more sophisticated level, there is a growing body of research that supports the therapeutic implementation of this connection in the form of helping those with neurological insults (e.g. stroke, Parkinson, etc.) re-learn how to walk, talk, and move again. In these instances, the rhythm works as an external cue that organizes and synchronizes the motor behavior. This works with gait training (re-learning how to walk), strengthening upper extremity motor movements (e.g. reaching, bicep curls), and entraining oral motor skills.
This new research adds a third element to the equation, a social element. These results support that synchronized rhythmic motor patterns may promote prosocial behaviors. By extension, perhaps this effect can be seen with other social behaviors, such as group cohesion.
In many ways this makes intuitive sense. Think about the camaraderie felt when dancing together. Or when walking down the street with a friend and you note you are walking in step with each other. And if you were ever in marching band, remember the camaraderie you felt with your fellow marching members? These are experiences when a rhythmic, synchronous motor event helped us feel closer with each other.
Although a bit premature, given my interest music and emotions, I envision some intriguing possibilities for how this might inform the development of more social-emotional behaviors, such as empathy. There is already research showing that preschool and school-aged children who participate in joint music making or long-term group music experiences demonstrate increased empathy scores.
What does it mean for you parents of toddlers? For starters, keep doing what you're already doing. Keep singing to your child. Turn on the music and dance together. Continue to rock your child and sing lullabies. Keep up the play-songs, those spirited tunes that have you bouncing your child on your knee.
Then do it more often. And remember that this musical movement play is not just for "fun"— it's your way of fostering your child's ability to engage with others, be helpful, and empathize.
Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.
Cirelli, L. K., Einarson, K. M., & Trainor, L. J. (2014). Interpersonal synchrony increases prosocial behaviors in infants. Developmental Science. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/desc.12193.
Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evoluation and Human Behavior, 31, 354-364. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004
Rabinowitch, T., Cross, I., & Burnard, P. (2012). Long-term musical group interaction has a positive influence on empathy in children. Psychology of Music, 1-15. doi:10.1177/0305735612440609