What are Play It Forward’s KEYS to Learning?

Keys, an invention that dates back to the 6th century B.C.,  are one of the most commonly manufactured metal objects in the entire world, enabling us to live in a modern civilization that has many of its features safeguarded and locked behind billions of locks. At Play It Forward, we know that opportunities remain locked behind doors that are inaccessible to too many children. We work every day to make sure that the keys to learning remain available to children because we believe that each child deserves to have access to unlock their own potential.

All Ears

It all starts with what we hear, according to Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist who researches sound and a professor at Northwestern University.

Kraus wrote the 2022 book Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World.

In an interview with Edutopia, a foundation established by the filmmaker George Lucas, Kraus elaborated on the premise of her book, which is that “the key to understanding music’s advantages, researchers say, lies in how the brain processes sound, the raw material of music, language, and—perhaps counterintuitively—learning to read.

“The sounds that come in through our ears travel along an anatomically complex ‘auditory pathway’ that’s deeply connected to parts of the brain that determine how humans move, how we think and speak, what we know, and what we pay attention to.”

Kraus singles out music education as a powerful educational tool, noting the path to knowledge is strewn with the notes of music a child both hears and plays.

“To play the violin, for example, a student needs to coordinate their motor, cognitive, and sensory systems to be able to put their fingers on the correct strings and move the bow at the right time; to read musical notes on a sheet of music and know what sounds they represent; and to hear if the pitches and rhythms are correct and coordinating with other players at the right time. Then there’s how the sound of music makes the student feel, which lights up the brain’s reward system. Engaging all these different systems makes learning how to play music one of the richest and deepest brain activities that humans perform.”

Kraus also cites the experience of those who teach children to buttress her point.

“Teachers resoundingly tell me that children who play music also do better in school. Young musicians also tend to have stronger language and reading skills than non-musicians because their brains have spent more time actively ‘engaging with sound.’”

Goin’ to Kansas City

A 2014 paper anticipates many of Kraus’ insights. Titled Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians, the paper was funded by the Grammy Foundation and authored by a group of researchers associated with the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The study looked at children similar in age to those in Play It Forward’s lessons – 5 and older – as well as adults, and compared people who studied music to those who don’t.

In particular, the study examined how music education affects a person’s executive function – the ability of your brain to pay attention, have a working memory, employ inhibition, and solve problems.

“Musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed, and significantly greater activation in (other brain tasks) compared to musically untrained children,” the study found. Likewise, adults showed results similar to children.

“Adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency,” the study stated.

The study notes that developing executive function is the key to children unlocking the treasure trove of knowledge.

“Overall, (executive function) abilities have been shown to be more predictive of academic readiness for schooling than intelligence and predict math and reading skills throughout all grades,” the study states. “Specific features of EF, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control, demonstrate a strong relationship with mathematics and literacy skills in kindergarteners. Evidence suggests that the executive function system is imperative for academic achievement at all grade levels. Thus, EF development seems to be crucial for academic readiness and long-term achievement.”

Harvard weighs in

Harvard Professor Nadine Gaab coordinated a 2016 study on children and adults who had studied or not studied music. The results were astonishing, notes an article on Harvard’s Graduate School website.

“Both adult and children musicians exhibited higher cognitive flexibility than non-musicians.

“The adult musicians showed a more proficient working memory, and the child musicians exhibited faster processing speed, than their non-musician peers.

“Most significant, the researchers found differences in brain activation between child musicians and non-musicians.

“We had more activation in areas of the brain I often call the ‘CEO regions’” — the frontal regions associated with executive function — “in the children who had musical training compared to others,” says Gaab.

A final note

In a world with numerous worthy causes competing for donor dollars and community support, Play It Forward understands it’s not always easy picking which nonprofit should garner your interest. That’s why PIF considers it important to let our supporters know, through these articles, that every dollar they give is helping each child enrolled in our program use their KEYS to open doors to a brighter academic and social future.