Susannah Kirkman explains how a nursery school uses a drum to help children develop new skills
Banging on the big bass drum has taken on a new meaning for children at St Werburgh's Park Nursery School and Family Unit in Bristol, who are using a 44-inch drum to boost pre-reading and concentration skills, as well as musical talents. "Because of its size, the drum has an almost magical quality and it makes a very powerful, almost toe-curling noise," says Liz Jenkins, acting head at St Werburgh's Park. "The deep vibration makes it a sensory experience; we have had toddlers banging on it with their bare feet."
The drum has a tough membrane made of cowhide and it is big enough for groups of up to 12 children to play. The three and four-year-olds often use it to tap out the syllables in their names.
"Playing with sounds and rhythm is the beginning of phonological awareness," explains Liz Jenkins. "Breaking words into syllables is a pre-reading skill."
She points out that, although music has been virtually squeezed out of the primary curriculum in the UK, schools in Scandinavian countries prepare children to read through daily musical activities that build phonological memory. Playing the drum along with simple nursery rhymes and stories reinforces language and encourages children to listen carefully.
"More and more young children have poor listening skills," says Vicky Meadows, a specialist music teacher who visits St Werburgh's Park once a week. "They find it difficult to tune into particular sounds, so music can help them to learn language in a positive way."
Teachers find that the drum is also excellent at developing important social skills, such as listening to others, learning to share and waiting for a turn.
"It is confidence-building and it has really brought the shy ones out of their shells," says Angela Groombridge, one of the class teachers. In her group the children say their names clearly and confidently, before tapping out the syllables with evident glee.
Staff enjoy using the drum because children with special needs and English as a second language can be easily included.
One pupil with delayed development can play on the drum as well as anyone else, says Liz Jenkins. "You can see her picking out the words of the songs."
Gerhard Kress, the craftsman who made it, says the drum is also culturally inclusive. "All cultures have drums," he explains. "I was inspired by pictures of a very large Native American drum and then I realised it would make an excellent resource for schools. I used to work with children with special needs and I know it is something I would love to have used.
"Hand music, and especially drumming, is non-threatening and it helps children to open up and express their emotions."
Mr Kress makes a range of exotic drums, including traditional Irish bodhr ns, as well as Arabic and medieval drums.
But the drum is only one part of an extensive music programme at St Werburgh's Park. Teachers also use singing, claves and shaker eggs with children. All staff have received music training, thanks to funding from the education action zone, which also pays for specialist teachers such as Vicky Meadows.
"Music is all about confidence," she says. "If people were told as children, 'You can't sing', they will then be wary of trying to teach music themselves."
The giant drum costs pound;595. Gerhard Kress can be contacted at Kress Drums Telfax: 0117 9542351 Email: Gerhard@gurtmint.co.uk