Sing, clap hands for better cognitive and motor skills

New BGU research reveals direct link between certain activities and development skills.

Everyone likes to be on the receiving end of applause. But Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researchers have found that giving it – especially while singing at a young age – can promote the development of important skills needed as children and even young adults.
Dr. Idit Sulkin, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the first-ever study of hand-clapping songs, revealed a direct link between those activities and development skills.
“We found that children in the first, second and third grades who sing these songs demonstrate skills absent in children who don’t take part in similar activities,” said Sulkin, now a member of BGU’s music science lab in the department of the arts, this week. “We also found that children who spontaneously perform hand-clapping songs in the yard during recess have neater handwriting, write better and make fewer spelling errors.”
Dr. Warren Brodsky, the music psychologist who supervised her doctoral dissertation, said Sulkin’s findings lead to the presumption that “children who don’t participate in such games may be more at risk of developmental learning problems like dyslexia [reading difficulties] and dyscalculia [problems with arithmetical calculations]. There’s no doubt such activities train the brain and influence development in other areas. The children’s teachers also believe that social integration is better among these children than among those who don’t take part in these songs.”
As part of the study, Sulkin went to several elementary school classrooms and engaged the children in either an Education Ministry-sanctioned music appreciation program or hand-clapping song training – each lasting a period of 10 weeks.
“Within a very short period of time, the children who until then hadn’t taken part in such activities caught up in their cognitive abilities with those who did,” she said. But this finding only surfaced in the group of children undergoing hand-clapping song training. The result led Sulkin to conclude that hand-clapping songs should be made an integral part of education for children aged six to 10 for the purpose of motor and cognitive training.
During the study, titled “Impact of Hand-clapping Songs on Cognitive and Motor Tasks,” Sulkin interviewed school and kindergarten teachers, visited their classrooms and joined the children in singing. Her original goal, as part of her thesis, was to figure out why children are fascinated by singing and clapping up until the end of third grade, when these pastimes are abruptly abandoned and replaced by sports.
“This fact explains a developmental process the children are going through,” Sulkin observed. “The hand-clapping songs appear naturally in children’s lives around the age of seven and disappear around the age of 10. In this narrow window, these activities serve as a developmental platform to enhance children’s needs – emotional, sociological, physiological and cognitive. It’s a transitional stage that leads them to the next phase of growing up.”
Sulkin says that no in-depth, long-term study has been conducted on the effects of hand-clapping songs on children’s motor and cognitive skills. However, the relationship between music and intellectual development in children has been studied extensively, prompting countless parents to obtain Baby Mozart CDs for their tots.
She also found that hand-clapping song activity has a positive effecton adults: University students who filled out her questionnairesreported that after taking up such games, they became more focused andless tense.
“These techniques are associated with childhood, and many adults treatthem as a joke,” Sulkin said. “But once they start clapping, theyreport feeling more alert and in a better mood.”
Sulkin grew up in a musical home; her father, Dr. Adi Sulkin, is awell-known music educator, who in the 1970s and 1980s recorded andpublished over 50 cassettes and videos depicting Israeli children’splay songs, street songs and holiday and seasonal songs, as well assinging games that targeted academic skills.
“So quite apart from the research experience, working on this was like a second childhood,” Sulkin concluded.