What Age Should My Child Learn to Play a Musical Instrument or Chess?

After going on and on about the benefits of learning a musical instrument:

And how playing chess develops the brain and enhances academic performance:

I was finally asked by a parent: “When is the best age for a child to start these activities?”

I wish there was a simple answer for this, but there isn’t. Just like everything else, the answer is – “It depends.” Yes, I know. I hate those wishy-washy answers, too. My mathematical brain likes black and white answers – it either is or it isn’t, don’t tell me about the shades of gray. But we’re human beings and the nature of that means that what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Are you looking at fun and games or sending your child for formal lessons? Obviously, formal lessons will require a significant level of commitment and a certain level of maturity from your child.
  • Is your child interested to learn? This is probably the easiest gauge to follow. If your child appears interested in playing the game or learning the instrument, it’s probably a good time to start.
  • Level of maturity – if you are planning for formal lessons, your child needs to be able to meet certain requirements in order for the lessons to be meaningful. It is important to remember that all children are different and will reach this level at different ages – some may be ready at 3 years old, others may need to wait until they’re 5 or 6. A good gauge would be to ask:
    • Will your child follow instructions?
    • Can your child sit in one place for an hour?
  • Group or solo? Some children do better with group lessons, while others need one-to-one attention.

Considerations for Starting Early

If you are a long time follower of this blog, you will know that I am an advocate for starting early because the younger your child is, the easier it is for your child to learn. However, the difficulty of starting early is that young children are also harder to engage. You need to thread carefully and make sure that the approach is suitable. Some programs don’t work for very young children and there is a possibility that the methods that are geared towards older children may put off rather than encourage the young child. If your child is particularly sensitive, the wrong approach may ruin any possibility for further development.

Getting Started

What’s your stance?

A music teacher once told me that I could treat music lessons in one of two ways:

  1. It can be an activity for your child to enjoy – he can choose to continue or to quit; or
  2. It can be like school – where music lessons are something that you require him to do.

There’s no right or wrong, whatever decision you make, however, depending on your child’s personality, one approach may work better than the other.

The Commitment Period

I’ve always had this romantic idea that I would introduce my child to an activity and he will discover an intense passion for it that will take him the rest of the way. This notion has perhaps been encouraged by the stories I have read about the greats…

  • Susan Polgár started learning chess at the age of 4 after she discovered a chess board and demonstrated an interest in the game
  • Joshua Bell started learning to play the violin at the age of 4 after he started playing music with rubber bands stretched across the handles of his dresser drawer

I hate having to nag my son to practice his instrument. It is a constant dilemma for me whether to insist he give it a “proper go” or to let him give it up. When I think about the stories of Joshua Bell and Susan Polgár, I wonder if their parents ever had to nag them to practice? Did they go through periods when they just wanted to quit? Nobody ever writes about that.

Amy Chua, the infamous Tiger Mum, once said that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it” and she has a point there. So before starting any classes for your child, have an agreement that your child will commit to “x” number of lessons before deciding to continue or to quit.

The Method

Sometimes it is not the lessons that need to stop but the approach of the teacher, because the way the teacher engages your child can be the difference between your child continuing or quitting.

Image Source: Refe99.com


Choosing Extra-Curricular Activities for Your Child

In an era of technology, screens, and physical inactivity, encouraging your child to pursue an extra-curricular activity can offer him a welcomed diversion. Extra-curricular activities offer many benefits and advantages to children, however, choosing one can be a daunting task. So how do you decide?

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Obviously, the best way to choose is to simply ask your child what he is interested in. Of course, until he has actually tried it, an activity will only be an idea in his mind and he won’t really know if he likes it enough to continue with it. Your child may try and reject a number of activities before finding the one he likes and that’s okay. With Aristotle, I have always made it a point to let him try an activity and give it up  so long as he has given it a real go – that is my only requirement before quitting. If it seems a bit troubling to watch your child flounder with a lack of focus, there is an interesting article from the Life Learning Magazine on Dabbling, Digging Deep and Quitting: the Real Costs of Parental Pressure that offers a different perspective on this and may help you rethink this concern.

If there is an activity that you feel is important for your child to pick up (e.g. swimming for water safety), it is still important to speak to your child and have an agreement about it. There is no point choosing an activity that your child really dreads because you risk putting him off that activity for the rest of his life. Some children may quit an activity but revisit it later and go on to really enjoy if they are given a chance. If you force it, you are likely to kill of any possibility that your child may discover a passion for it in future.

What are the Benefits of the Activity?

Consider the added benefits that the activity might offer your child. Here are some benefits of various extra-curricular activities we have covered in the past:

Any activity that takes your child outdoors will also have the added benefits of being exposed to nature.


Who Wants it More

A parent’s role is to guide and encourage. However, the lines are easily blurred when emotions are involved. Probably the greatest pitfall with an extra-curricular activity is wanting it more than your child does. A lot of us have memories of activities we wished we could have done when we were children and we try to rectify it by living vicariously through our children. We view the ability to do this activity as a privilege for our child that we did not have growing up but no matter how wonderful you think this opportunity is, your child may not agree with you. It is important to remember that your child is not your chance to relive the past.

The Value of a Good Mentor

In Nurtured by Love, Shinichi Suzuki (inventor of the international Suzuki method of music education) writes about the importance of having a good teacher for talent education. He compared it to the nightingales that are trained to sing beautiful songs. Nightingales learn to sing by listening to other nightingales singing. How well a particular nightingale will learn to sing depends on how well the “master bird” sings. If a nightingale listens to a good “master bird”, it will also learn to sing well. If the “master bird” sings poorly, the young nightingale will also learn to sing poorly.

Similarly, if you want your child to pick up an extra-curricular activity and be good at it, it is important to get your child a good mentor rather than to try to teach your child the activity yourself. For instance, if you would like your child to learn a second language, even if you could keep ahead of your child’s learning progress, your accent would never be as good as a native or fluent speaker. It would be worthwhile, therefore, to engage a specialised teacher or to arrange for professional lessons.

Extra-Curricular Activities: Ice Skating at the Royale Bintang Ice Skating Rink

I took Aristotle ice skating recently. We went to the new ice skating rink at the Royale Bintang Damansara Hotel near eCurve. Firstly, I have to say that I ought to be pleased he was so amenable to the suggestion in the first place since he isn’t really the kind of child that is eager to try new things that are out of his comfort zone. That said, we lasted the whole of three quarters of a circuit around the ice before he decided he’d had enough. It seemed like we were barely out on the ice before he was hanging up his skates and calling it a day. He came, he saw, he tried, and now he’s done with ice skating – forever.

Looks like I’ll be waiting for Hercules to step up…

I should have done my homework before throwing Aristotle into the deep end. If you’re interested to let your child try ice skating, this is the general advice:

  • Your child should be at least 5 years old, preferably 7 years old. 5 year olds need to be accompanied by their parents. 7 year olds can go it alone.
  • Let your child try rollerblading first. The idea behind this is so that they are familiar with the idea behind skating. The transition from terra firma to slippery skates on ice may be too much of a jump for most kids. If they have a general idea of rollerblading, they will have something to fall back on. If you’re wondering where to go, try Rollersports World. They have three locations – Sungai Wang, Bangsar Shopping Complex, and Endah Parade.
  • The problem most children have when skating is that their legs are not strong enough (that’s why you need to wait until they are about 7 years old). The best way to help your child strengthen his/her legs is to do gymnastics. You can take your child for gymnastics at Flykidz, Young Explorer, or The Little Gym.

Additional advice from our experience:

  • You can get a penguin skating aide for your child to hang onto while on the ice but most kids seemed to do okay just hanging onto the side railing. I’m wondering if that would have been a better bet for Aristotle because there is more security from the railing compared to the penguin aide which also moves. Once your child is more confident on the ice, the penguin aide comes in handy as a confidence builder prior to going solo.
  • I did try to pull Aristotle along while he held the penguin but he had the problem of falling because he couldn’t keep his skates straight.

The Royale Bintang Ice Skating Rink



  • Ice Skating Manager: Mr Abraham Gasre – +6012-2960773
  • Ice Skating Supervisor: Mr Alan Tham – +6012-6082011
  • Sales Office: Ms Fiona Chan – +603-79599000

Operating Hours:

  • 10am-10pm daily.


  • Early Bird Special (before 12pm) – RM25 (includes skates)
  • Entry after 12pm – RM30 (includes skates)
  • Penguin skating aid rental: RM25/hr
  • Gloves: RM8 a pair
  • Socks: RM6 a pair
  • Locker hire: RM2

Ice Skating Gloves


Currently, they do not offer certified classes, but you can book lessons at RM55 per half hour. You’ll learn the basics – how to fall, how to get up, and how to skate confidently on the ice. They only have one instructor at the moment so it’s best to book in advance in order to secure your lesson. If you want proper lessons, you will still have to go to Sunway Pyramid.

What to Wear

It gets a little cold before you get on the ice so jeans or long pants and a light sweater or cardigan are recommended. I found I warmed up quickly from the exertion on the ice, though. Socks and gloves are compulsory so bring a set or you can buy them at the ticket counter.