Quit laughing. I know you read the title and started cackling. Children, admittedly, have a lack of appreciation for quiet. If anything, the heavy walking, loud breathing, human noisemakers seem to get perverse pleasure out of being loud. To them, he or she who is the loudest for the longest wins.
Teaching children to value quiet is about more than just saving our own sanity. There’s another, more fundamental reason. Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, or collector of sound. He travels the globe in search of the rarest nature sounds – sounds that can only be heard in the “absence of man-made noise.”
According to Hempton, silence is an “endangered species.” In an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett, he described our environment as being filled with “noise pollution,” like the pinging of cell phones, the beeping of car doors locks, and the rustling of the artificial fabric of our clothes. These things don’t just take place in our homes and public spaces. They’re everywhere – even in nature.
If you’ve been to a designated outdoor space lately, especially somewhere with crowds, like a National Park, you know the truth of this. There is always one annoying hiker who brings a walking stick – and a cell phone. Or you’re deep into a walk in the woods only to step on a crinkly potato chip bag that someone neglected to pack in, pack out.
In a world where being loud is lauded, let’s teach our children the beauty of quiet and stillness. Let’s teach them to listen intently, not just to words, but to the sounds around them. Did you know that while our bodies sleep, our ears don’t? It’s how we can hear the alarm clock in the morning or a child calling for us in the night.
Teaching children to appreciate silence isn’t about saying “hush” or doing like your elementary school teacher did and turning out the lights until everyone settles down. Make listening to the quiet into a game, and try some of the following:
Lie down and listen
Grab a blanket and have your kids lie down next to you. If they’re really little, tell them to be still and quiet like a noodle. Now have them listen and try to distinguish sounds. If you’re indoors, can you hear running water, rain dripping from the eaves, or doors shutting? If you’re outdoors, can you hear birds, airplanes, the wind, rustling leaves?
Go on a night walk
When it’s dark, we rely more heavily on our hearing than our sense of sight. Walk with your ears and listen for nighttime sounds. How do they differ from daytime sounds? Do sounds echo? Are they louder or more muffled at night? Bonus: Learning to discern night sounds can be especially helpful for small children who are afraid of the dark, because it removes the element of the unknown.
Make shadow puppets
Make shadow puppets on the ceiling using a flashlight or night light. Your puppets don’t have to be elaborate. A bunny or dog will do. Although shadow puppets are visual, they require stillness and focus. They can teach children to appreciate the interplay of light and shadow, which happens in nature, too.
Do a smell test
Pull a few spices like cinnamon or curry or chili from the spice cabinet. Blindfold your children, or ask them to shut their eyes tightly. Now ask them to notice what they smell. Does one smell sweet, while another one smells spicy? Can your child name the different smells? Now, add an auditory component to the game. With your children’s eyes still closed, open the refrigerator and pull out a condiment like ketchup. Can your children identify the item based on smell and sound?
Listen to soundscapes
Many parents play nature sounds at night as a sleep inducer for their kids. They’ll flick on the sound machine and call it a night. Instead, try listening with your child – even for a few minutes – and see if, together, you can pick out the different nature sounds. Or change things up and play a soundscape during waking hours so that everyone, at any time of day, can appreciate the natural tempo of earth, wind, water, and fire.