Perfect Timing: Rhythm, Timing, and the Brain

Timing is everything. For the most part, that statement is true.

Everything we do requires rhythm and timing. EVERYTHING. Think about it: walking, talking, reading this sentence, etc. It all relies on a pace and a pattern to complete them.

We’ve talked in previous posts about body awareness and how it affects bilateral coordination and motor planning, but rhythm and timing ensures that those movements are fluid when interacting with objects and people around us. Most of the time, you hardly notice it until you have a clumsy moment walking or stuttering over your words when in conversation.

Feel the Rhythm, Feel the Time

Despite the terms being used interchangeably, rhythm and timing refer to different things. Rhythm is a pattern of beats, while timing is the speed those beats are performing at. For example, think of our heartbeat. The two-beat “lub-blub” is its rhythm and how fast/slow it’s beating is its timing.

A child’s internal rhythm and timing start even before birth, hearing their mother’s heartbeat and voice in the womb. They then get exposed to rhythmic inflections and facial expressions as babies, when parents are cooing and begin baby talking. As they grow, their rhythm and timing will adjust to accommodate outside influences such as their environment (big city or small-town living) and others around them (grandparents vs little kids), building the foundation for their emotional, social, and cognitive development.

How important is rhythm and timing? Let’s look at the research:

  • Research has found that language determines the way we hear rhythm.
  • Studies reveal that children who struggle to produce or hear rhythms also tend to have difficulty with language processing and reading.
  • Longitudinal studies conducted in Chicago and Los Angeles discovered that playing an instrument or singing for two years can fundamentally and permanently improve a child’s cognitive abilities.
  • A 2021 study shows that preschoolers who performed well on beat synchronization tasks outscored their peers on literacy measures, proving that rhythm, preliteracy, and auditory processing are interconnected during early childhood.
  • A study of 585 students found that there is a significant correlation between timing and academic performance. Furthermore, students with the best timing were the same ones with the best grades, standardized test scores, and attention in the classroom.

Rhythm and timing are also fundamental components in completing refined tasks with the upmost precision (like learning cursive or perfecting that cat-eye from makeup tutorials). Our mental and interval timing is measured down to the microsecond and that can carry into how we process where we are in relation to our environment, how we coordinate movement, estimate time, and calibrate our circadian rhythm. In other words, if our timing is off by microseconds, it can affect how we operate in our day-to-day lives.

Out of Sync

The brain structures responsible for generating time are also involved in motor planning, speech production, fluidity of thoughts and movement, synchronization of actions, modulating emotion/behavior/arousal, and shifting attention. So, it’s no wonder that if we feel off beat that everything else feels off too.

When our timing is off, we’re distracted, impulsive, clumsy, off-balance, and trip over our own words. For kids, they may have a hard time with handwriting, reading out loud, participating in sports, etc. If the timing in their brain does not match the tempo of the classroom or home, they might have difficulties keeping up with their peers or slowing down to accurately obtain new information. 

Recent studies have found that children with learning delays, prematurity, ADHD, autism, and other similar conditions have structural differences in the parts of the brain that oversee rhythm and timing. Further research also discovered that difficulties detecting a beat is a common trait regarding students with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.

The good news is that the brain is plastic and with consistency and practice, it can strengthen neural connections or create new pathways to improve rhythm and timing.

Stay on Beat

Rhythm and timing activities help improve the brain’s efficiency and performance by improving auditory processing, short-term and working memory, processing speed, executive functions, motor coordination, and integrating sensory information. Here are some activities you can try with your kid to help them find that “just right” pace.

  • Play That SongAny activity that has music is great at helping develop rhythm and timing. Playing your favorite songs while interacting with your kids can stimulate their cerebellum and basal ganglia, especially when beats change tempo or rhythm. Play different genres of music and see which one your kiddo gravitates to. You can also sing camp songs, bring out drums, or teach them some old school clapping games (like Down by the Bank or Miss Mary Mack) to promote motor planning and bilateral coordination. 
       
  • Wiggle It Just a Little BitDancing promotes synchronizing body movements with a beat. Researchers have hypothesized that movement helps us understand and hear rhythm. How we hear and interpret rhythm then influences how we move. So let your child loose as you play Party in the USA for the eighth time, or encourage them to get up and dance while watching Cocomelon. You can increase the difficulty by playing games like Dance Freeze or Musical Chairs to help them focus and shift attention between listening to the music and stopping movement.

  • Have a Ball Balls indirectly set a rhythm and tempo when bounced, dribbled, or tossed around. That steady rhythm allows the body and brain to sync up to that beat and adjust to maintain it. You can have your child bounce and catch a ball. Once they’ve mastered that, you can up the ante by changing the ball size, catching with one hand or alternating hands, or dribbling it with their hands or their feet. Add a social component by playing a game of catch and throw.

  • Hop, Skip, or Jump – Remember hopscotch, jumping rope, or even Skip It? Yeah, it’s time to bring those childhood pastimes back. Hopscotch allows your child to provide their own rhythm and pace by jumping with both feet to hopping on foot. As their movements become more fluid, the easier it will be and can transition to jumping rope (solo or with friends) or try their hand at Skip It and see how many times they can skip without stopping.

  • Let the Gaming Begin –In our last screen time post, we did say that screen time has its benefits. This is one of them. Video games require an element of rhythm and timing to execute combo moves or accurately tap a sequence of beats. It also provides immediate feedback to help your kid adapt their timing to succeed. Remember to establish your gaming rules and to use it in moderation, balancing it out with other forms of play and hands-on experiences.

  • Check their Interoception – One of the brain structures involved in timing is the cingulate gyrus. One of its functions is to help regulate autonomic motor functions like heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. So, if your child is stressed or tired, their rhythm and timing will be off. If this happens, incorporate interoceptive activities, like breathing exercises to help them slow down or jumping around to pump them back up.

  • Tick Tock – If your child is struggling with coordinating their movements, try a metronome. Have them clap, march, or bounce a ball to the beat. If it’s hard at first, remember to keep the task simple (clapping hands), slow (speed), and steady (rhythm). Once they master that, change the tempo, the task, or add additional simple movements (clap hands, stomp foot). A metronome definitely isn’t an everyday house item, so look for an app or website that can keep the beat.

If you notice that your child’s rhythm and timing is affecting their participation in meaningful activities (like playing with friends or paying attention in school), it wouldn’t hurt to ask about programs like Interactive Metronome, an assessment and training tool used to improve one’s timing at a millisecond level to strengthen skills like executive functions, motor control/coordination, speech/language, and sensory processing.


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Sources:
Timing, Rhythm and the Brain: Why Timing Affects Learning – Integrated Learning Strategies (ilslearningcorner.com)
Bonacina, S., Huang, S., White-Schwoch, T. et al. Rhythm, reading, and sound processing in the brain in preschool children. npj Sci. Learn. 6, 20 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-021-00097-5
Neuroscience reveals how rhythm helps us walk, talk — and even love | CBC Radio
Rhythm & Timing – Whole Child Learning and Wellness – Members Area (wholechildlearningsolutions.com)
Jones, M. (2010, February 3). Interactive Metronome Live Certification Course. Live Lecture. Atlanta, GA.

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