Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project

Part 1: Creating digital musical resources for young people with special educational needs

We listen to music with our ears but I like to think that we perceive music with all of our other senses, intellect and emotions.

For several years now, I have been using multi-sensory methods to teach music to young children. Originally conceived as a way to help children gain confidence with music notation, my ‘Rhythm Circle approach’ rapidly developed from just using a few musical games and activities into my personal music education approach.

It is magical to engage ALL the senses (touch, movement, hearing, sight, smells and tastes) in the learning of music.

Take for example the concept of musical tempo – a child might listen to examples of fast and slow music and be taught the words allegro and lento for fast and slow. How much more profound that learning would be if they could also respond to tempo by:

movement (moving to the speed of the music)

– choosing visual shapes (NO ONE ever chooses to paint blobs on the side of a Nissan Micra to promote speed but an aspiring speedster might opt for some go-faster stripes)

– by using scents which support a particular level of activity (the aroma of zingy lemons is said to energise whilst lavender calms).

Because multi-sensory learning activates and strengthens connections between different areas of the brain, learning is more deeply embedded in the mind of a learner. Hence its wide-spread use amongst educators working with children with special educational needs.

The term ‘neurodiversity’ is increasingly used instead of ‘special educational needs’ as it focuses on the positive qualities of thinking and learning differently. It encourages us to consider people who have neurological differences as ‘different’ not ‘disabled’.  

What is neurodiversity?

Earlier on in May 2020, I heard from colleagues interested in good quality digital resources which could support artistic work in schools and communities.  The pandemic has wiped out most of the support which special needs communities relied on (in-school sessions with teachers and visiting specialists, community support groups). What could we do to help?

The whole world had gone online in a mad rush to survive and music was no exception. Everything has to be digitized including delivery of my Rhythm Circle sessions. But how? Was it still possible to use multi-sensory approaches…digitally?

Feedback from busy families indicated that printed-off worksheets were not always welcome or helpful. Guided live sessions were more appropriate. There had to be some way of making all these resources link up in a more sophisticated way.

A live inclusive music session (picture courtesy of the Attenborough Arts Centre)

I happen to be married to a software programmer. As our lockdown family project, my long-suffering husband had been persuaded to try his hand at turning some Rhythm Circle games into online games. Maybe we could go further and create some online musical games and activities to help neurodiverse children learn music?

But digital games are expensive to produce. The Arts Council of England Project Grants programme had just re-opened so I hurriedly put together an application. Cue much excited screaming when my project was actually accepted!

Presently, my team and I are three weeks into the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project. We hope to complete all of our musical games before Christmas 2020:  Musical Sudoku, ‘Run Faster’ (a Jack and the Beanstalk – inspired game teaching musical tempo), and ……a yet-to-be-decided graphic score activity.

All this will be trialled in January 2021 by target groups representing primary-aged children, pre-schoolers and neurodiverse young people.

We have almost completed the initial consultation stage, taking on board advice from consultants (special educational needs, Early Years and digital specialists) and feedback from neurodiverse communities.

Burning question: how DO you actually go about making a resource suitable for neurodiverse people? Which type of neurodiversity should we address? Consultant play therapist Andrew Kay provided a starting point with his advice “It is very likely that someone who has one type of learning difference also has another. For example, an autistic person can also be dyslexic.”

Co-occurence of Specific Learning Difficulties


(source: British Dyslexia Association)

So, we started to research characteristics common to many neurodiverse people e.g. poor working memory, problems with sensory processing.

Online games are primarily visual so we need to ensure our games would be visually supportive for people who have problems with reading (dyslexia) or who use eye gaze technology (users are those who have limited mobility or who are locked-in due to a variety of conditions ranging from cerebral palsy and strokes to muscular dystrophy). The British Dyslexia Association has a ‘Dyslexia friendly style guide’ which lists useful adaptations which one can use for written texts.

Digital consultant Wayne Smyth (Trifort Solutions) suggested creating a ‘filter’. This would enable the user to experience the games via a specific route tailored to their learning age and needs, and create a more personalised experience.

Presentation of information in the games and the accompanying explainer videos would need to be paced to allow for more ‘thinking time’. The videos themselves would be better done in the form of high-contrast simple cartoons instead of live-capture – as one school told us ‘The children are tired of looking at people all the time!’.

I am very lucky to be supported by the wonderful Attenborough Arts Centre on this project. They are supporting Rhythm Circle’s inclusive work by facilitating conversations with teachers and families of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. “We’re really interested in how the artists involved are developing resources and workshops and are always keen to promote artist development as part of a collaborative process with young people. The project findings will feed into our wider work as part of our 4-year SENsory Atelier programme, and as ever we’re delighted to support a project that encourages sharing of best practice amongst a wide team of expert artists and educators.”

In Part 2 of this blog, I would like to share an account of how we borrowed from best practices in Early Years teaching approaches.

Find out more about the Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project and its trials here

Rhythm Circle Digital Games Project: How it began

Back in June 2020, my husband and I started a little family lockdown project. All our work had been migrated to digital platforms due to the lockdown, so I thought that we should combine our individual skills (software engineer and pianist) to see if we could make some musical online games. Digital games are normally hideously expensive and time-consuming to produce but we had time and inclination.

Earlier on in February, he watched me put together a beanstalk prop for my Jack and the Beanstalk musical storytelling workshop from recycled materials (glue gun, paint and lots of sticky tape will help you make most props if you’re short on capital and big on upcycling).

As a multi-sensory activity, my young Rhythm Circle students were asked to place leaves marked with the treble or bass clef at suitable positions along the beanstalk to reflect high or low sounds.

So I challenged him to create the digital equivalent of the Beanstalk and Leaves activity. He came up with a little prototype: Grow the Beanstalk . A second prototype (Musical Bingo) then followed (accompanied with dark mutterings of ‘I had to do math calculations that I had not done since school days in order to create the bingo wheel…’).

Stumpy even got his oar in by testing out the games for us. I thought he made an ideal test subject: squirmy, high-octane, young school-aged child, not particularly interested in sitting still, or being taught music by mum (he was still in denial about what I actually do for a living. Music was something that took me away from him, so any of my proposed musical activities was to be given short shrift)

The skeptical customer….

During the lockdown, my colleagues at the Attenborough Arts Centre  (an inclusive arts centre located in Leicester) and the Birmingham Education Partnership  had expressed interest in digital offerings.

Live sessions could not be delivered in schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic and workshop organisers and educators were considering digital alternatives. In particular, young people with special educational needs and their families were hit hard when they lost their existing support groups (in the form of support from schools or external providers). A full return to normal school activities seemed a long way off and would be in 2021 if at all possible, especially since many children with special needs were also extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

In order to support my ongoing musical work, I had already begun creating digital equivalents of my musical games and activities in the form of printable pdfs, recorded sound samples and video lessons.

So, when I heard that the Arts Council England (ACE) were re-opening their Project Grants programme, it seemed the perfect opportunity to draw together all these various strands in the form of a research and development project. My proposal to create several online musical games with a view to making them suitable for young people with special educational needs was accepted by ACE at the end of August.

So here we are – 3 weeks into the project. So far, it has been an exhilarating and crazy time, filled with consultation meetings, delving deep into issues of neurodiversity, trying to be organised and decisive….but also true to my ethos as an educator and musician.

Learning by doing

Box Zither

Exploring a box zither – what sound would you get if you plucked the strings?

It is said that children are natural scientists who have a natural urge to explore and experiment.

We have been exploring the world of string instruments this term at the Rhythm Circle Virtual Music Club. Part of that exploration involved making our own string instrument and you can’t get any simpler than a box zither – twangy rubber bands stretched over a box.

This was a lovely sensory thing to do and completely engaging. The children tried out different ways of playing it – plucking, hitting, strumming the strings. If you hold it on your cheek, the vibrations of the strings and box make a lovely buzz which you can feel on your skin.

We tuned it to get three different sounds – low, medium and high pitches (older children might want to try tuning them to a musical scale). Dots marked on the rubber bands were a useful visual aid: you could see that the dots were moved closer to the edge of the box when the rubber bands were stretched. It made it a lot easier to see how much stretching was needed to produce higher pitches.

No need to go out and start buying materials. Empty plastic ice-cream tubs and boxes from the recycling bins would get you started off. Smaller rubber bands can be stretched over the short end of the boxes instead and coloured ones will differentiate the rubber bands tuned to different pitches.