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

Musical Messy Play

I’d like to introduce my son who goes by the nom de plume ‘Stumpy'(before we had to put his name down on the birth certificate, this was actually what we called the poor child).

Stumpy loves words: the sound of them , their rhythm, singing them, mangling them, making up new words. He also likes paint, mud, orange juice , coins and ice cubes. Especially when allowed to mix them all up. He does NOT like being taught how to sing words. Or what colours to use when he wants to paint. Or just how much water he should use to make a muddy puddle. Or how to form a triangle using coins

Left triangle: made by me. Right triangle: made by Stumpy the minimalist

Stumpy taught me one very valuable lesson: that sound is just a manipulable – just like paint or mud. And it made him very, very happy to be able to explore and experiment with his favourite materials.

Occasionally, he would become curious about my musical work materials and ask to play with them. I would then bring them out to show him and he would immediately touch them or try and make patterns with them. 3D graphic scores are very popular with Stumpy. Big circles = big sounds, little circles = quiet sounds.

When he asked to play with my bottle caps note values, he got very excited at being able to recognise the letters ‘p’ and ‘o’ (ie. minims and semibreves).

Me(jumping at the chance to pass on some musical knowledge): “Look, this symbol is for a 2 count sound and this is for a 4 count sound”.

Stumpy : “No, Mummy it says ‘poo’. Look, you can make many, many ‘poo’s!”

Music at Home

A musical colleague recently asked me what I do as a musical mum with my child (I have a 4 year old son who recently started school).

My first thought was “Ummmm…….nothing?” But then I thought about it properly and this is the reply I sent to her:

Since my son loves exploring things and experimenting to see what effects he can create, I prefer to let him take the lead in our joint musical experiences. He does not enjoy ‘organised’ musical activity with me but loves singing , making up little songs and sounds. My little one is a joyfully out-of-tune singer but has a great sense of pulse. He enjoys singing and accompanying himself by beating the pulse on a drum/ stomping/bopping to the beat. I guess that stems from being surrounded by so much music since he was in the womb. Throughout my pregnancy and up until he was 2, he was with me when I worked. He has spent countless hours sitting in a dance studio listening and watching whilst I played for ballet class ( possibly where he developed quite a strong sense of pulse??). We used orchestral music in rehearsals and he would nap in a sling whilst I worked, falling asleep hearing rich and complex music .

I’ve always wondered if watching dancers move in time to music has helped my son develop a kinaesthetic understanding of music…

In the car, we listened to Gene Vincent sing Be Bop A Lula on the radio and he said he liked it, and asked me what it was. When I told him, he kept asking for it on Youtube. When my sister got an Alexa, he learnt how to ask for it and would dance to it. Sometimes, he would tell me if he liked /did not like a piece of music which was on the radio and we would talk about the mood of the music.

As for instruments, I’ve learnt to leave them lying around the house on convenient places. He likes trying out sounds on the piano, ringing the ‘dinner bell’ at mealtimes, drumming on a cake tin to keep himself in time when singing. For me, I guess enabling these musical things to happen are more important than music lessons because my child is learning to listen critically

Our dinner bell

B’Opera – Alice and the Library Tree

Team B’Opera singers Zoë Challenor (The Librarian) and Samantha Oxborough (Alice) accompanied on the piano by Phil Ypres-Smith (Mr Fox)

If you have a young child and want  top-quality musical experiences for them, then let me introduce you to B’Opera.

Rhythm Circle was invited to the press preview of their latest production Alice and the Library Tree . So…. son and spouse in tow, I went along last Saturday 8 June 2019 to Sutton Library where the event was being held . after-hours.

I had not come across B’Opera before and was deeply curious about their work on a couple of levels. Firstly, as a mum to a rumbunctious 3 year old I was keen to find good quality music / theatre experiences which were produced by people who understood how to work with very young children. There is a distinct lack of top-rate musical/theatrical/art experiences by actual music/theatre/art specialists who understand how to deliver the best possible experience to very young children. Secondly, as a professional musician, I wanted to see what other people in my industry were actually doing to fill this niche.

Well…. I loved the whole production, from choice of music (Handel, Mozart, Beethoven,  and Wagner amongst others) to length of show (perfect length for a restless toddler), inventive costumes  and set (loved the Zimmer frame tortoise, and the tree).  It was  a bespoke mini-opera for little ones and the whole experience was simply wonderful! 

As a mum:

My 3 year old son really enjoyed it. He was really tired due to the late hour (it finished at 6pm when he usually has dinner and bedtime) but he just kept on being caught up in the show. The children were invited to join in at various points throughout the show, but could opt-out if they didn’t feel like it. Now this is a REALLY important thing for my deeply-suspicious son. He watched the sing-along from the safety of Daddy’s arms, regretted not joining in,  and straightaway jumped in the next time the audience were invited to participate. There were themes and ideas which he could follow, emotions he could identify with, and each segment was perfectly timed in terms of length. The whole family had a great time and I would definitely look out and go for the next B’Opera show.

As a musician:

It was so satisfying to see a musical production that was specially created for very young children. We had real musicians performing, and as a trained musician I am happy to vouch for the quality of prep and performance.  B’Opera prepared the whole thing as they would normally have done for an opera onstage. Serious musical expertise was on display here, folks! This was bespoke art with a capital B. It all looked so simple, but the musical score could not have been put together by anyone other than seriously experienced musicians with good taste and artistry. The songs could not have been sung by anyone other than experienced singers with good technique, great communication, and stage presence. Not forgetting all the supporting people who made the magic happened, like costume and set designers (apologies to anyone at B’Opera whom I missed out) 

Last but not least, huge thanks to the fabulous Zoe Toft and team FOLIO (Friends of our Library ) Sutton Coldfield for your endless energy, enthusiasm and fore-sight in bringing B’Opera and Alice to Sutton Coldfield.

Birmingham people, how lucky are we to have B’Opera and FOLIO Sutton Coldfield right here in our city?!