It doesn't matter whether they're learning to play Oh! Susannah or Frere Jacques, kids are not only physically smaller than adults, but they learn differently, too. This can be a distinct advantage when it comes to learning to play the guitar, provided the students' unique characteristics are taken into account. This is no different than how you approach your child’s ability to learn math, to read or to play sports. Each child has their own style and the key is to understand what makes them tick.
Start young … but not too young
Many authorities agree that the age range of five through nine defines the group to consider when discussing guitar lessons for children. Generally speaking, kids younger than five still lack just a bit of needed maturity, both mental and physical. Those older than nine are considered physically large enough to handle an adult-sized instrument, as well as having attained the mental and emotional maturity to approach lessons and practice time with the serious attitude of learning necessary for success.
As for the specifics of that learning, the experts generally recommend guitars manufactured to half or three-quarter scale, for pint-sized students. An acoustic style guitar with nylon strings will be best in terms of physical comfort, but steel-string acoustic or electric guitar styles are an alternative, provided the instrument itself is not too large for the student.
The younger the student, the more likely it will be that the instructor will require both parental supervision for practice, and actual parental presence during lessons to facilitate the earliest encounters between teacher and student. After the first successful month or so, mom or dad won't have to stick around, but early lessons are generally no more than 30 minutes, and knowing what's expected of the student is always good information for the parent to have. After that, parents are generally welcome to attend, but not required, depending on the teaching style used.
Naturally, there are different styles of teaching guitar, depending on both the student and the teacher. Perhaps the broadest division for our purposes would be between what's known as the Suzuki method and a more traditional approach.
The Suzuki method—named for Japanese musician Shinichi Suzuki—relies upon a child's innate ability to learn complex activities through emersion in the activity being learned; a child's early facility learning and speaking its native tongue is the oft-cited example of this. The method has proven very effective with children six and under, requires a child-sized musical instrument, group lessons, repetitive listening to and imitation of recorded musical performances, imitation/critique of such performances and, perhaps most significant, heavy parental involvement in terms of attending lessons, taking notes, becoming, in effect, the child's "home teacher."
Traditional guitar lessons for children also involve the parents, but more in the role of facilitator—as in providing transportation, providing and maintaining an adequate practice environment, paying for the lessons and so forth. There may be disadvantages here for younger children needing more supervision, but also advantages for kids old enough to appreciate the autonomy of less supervision.
It goes without saying, though, that since the students in question are children, the parents will play some role. The extent of this will first be determined by the general teaching method, followed by significant variations among teachers within the given method.
About the Author: Mark Buchanan
I am an avid musician with 20+ years experience. I have performed live in the Midwest area with various bands performing mainly as a sideman. I enjoy all types of music and approach the study of music with an open mind. Though my performing schedule is heavy, I have a small group of students I teach when time allows. Music is a lifelong journey and I'm proud to be a part of it!