Sensory Play for Toddlers. Developing the Sense of Hearing
Scientists say a baby’s ears begin to form around eight weeks in the womb, where they are soothed by the gurgling and rumbling of Mom’s stomach. Some babies may even recognize their mother’s voice as early as week 27. What are some ways a parent can help develop their child’s sense of hearing?
Hear the Beat
Stacy Clark of Tampa Palms, Fla., had difficulty communicating with her toddler, Hanna, who she adopted from China at six months. “One of the first things we did was take her to a Music Together class,” says Clark, who recently joined her daughter in the creative family music program. “She did not understand any English, but music is a universal language.”
When Clark wants her daughter to put away her toys, she sings a song her toddler remembers when picking up instruments and props in the class. Clark also taught her daughter, who is almost 2, sign language. “After we started her sign language, she began speaking very quickly after that,” Clark says. In another year, she plans to enroll her daughter in piano lessons.
Suppose you decide to join a formal group such as Greensboro, N.C.-based Kindermusik, or Music Together. The Center for Music and Young Children developed in Princeton, N.J., don’t expect your toddler to sit still. Most toddlers wiggle and worm themselves away from their parents, only to return when they hear the mesmerizing sound of a tambourine, egg shakers, or their name in a song.
Jim Trelease of Springfield, Mass., a reading expert and author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 2001), says the basic tool of learning a language is words. “You build a house, you have to go out and get lumber,” he says. “The words are the lumber we use in order to build our understanding of the world we live in. There are only two ways to get words into a person’s head and through their brain – either through the eye or through the ear. If you learn braille, you could get them through your fingers, but it’s a whole lot slower.”
Reading is also the most fundamental way to help a child develop his sense of hearing. But Trelease reminds parents that a toddler’s attention span is usually two to three minutes unless you read to them while pregnant.
“A toddler has just recently discovered they are ambulatory, that they can get from one end of the room to the other,” says Trelease. “And considering they were locked up inside someone’s stomach for the first nine months and then for the next 12 months, they were locked up in a chair and crib, now they can get around. If, by the time they have reached 12 months of age, they have come to associate the book with a very secure, pleasurable experience; then they are less inclined to leave the book to go across the room to get something.”
Trelease suggests reading to a toddler while he is in a highchair eating or playing in his crib. Also, don’t neglect the ritual of reading a story at bedtime.
Children who have heard the most words come to school with the largest vocabularies, says Trelease. Some teachers may wonder if your child has a hearing problem if they seem unresponsive in class. Although hearing problems are common and often related to frequent ear infections, your child may not comprehend what the teacher is saying.
“The kids who have heard the most words understand the most of what the teacher is saying,” says Trelease. “The kids who have heard the fewest words understand the least of what she is teaching and they fall behind.”
Trelease says that a child has to hear it about 12 times for a word to make a substantial impact. He suggests reading to your child and playing books on tape, and listening to radio dramas. Although it’s important to talk to a child in conversation, it’s not the same as reading to a child, according to Trelease. Words on a page are more sophisticated, contain more rare words, and are written in more complex, longer sentences.
While no one expects you to put on an Emmy-award-winning performance every time you read, he says it is important to show enthusiasm. Never rush through a book to get it over with, or your child may pick up the message that reading is not important.
Rhymes and Chimes
Brain research shows children gravitate toward rhyming words before non-rhyming words, says Trelease. “Your hearing gravitates to patterns and the patterns in the language,” he says. “If you listen to children lying in the crib when they are learning to speak, it’s like one little poet lying in bed. ‘Bah bah bah bah,’ and they are repeating words over and over.”
Karen Clougherty of Tampa, Fla., a center director and instructor for music Together in the Tampa area, says children learn rhythm and rhyme in her program for infants and toddlers. Her son, Kearns, 6, participated when he was a toddler. He was more apt to walk around twirling the instruments rather than playing them, but Clougherty says it’s fine to let children experience music at their own pace.
“We start with singing ‘hello’ and we bring out egg shakers or sticks,” Clougherty says. “Those are designed to bring out the rhythm in the music. We have large movement and small movement to help the body come into it and use rhythm. We do a lot of vocal play with our voices. We do a lot of animal sounds.”
Clougherty says every child has a different learning style. Some children are more auditory while others are visual.
Children with hearing problems often benefit from a wide variety of music. “I had a mother with two children, a 5- and 7-year-old who both had auditory problems,” she says. “I found the repetition and the tonal play we do helped them develop. The repetition of the songs at class and at home helps them. It’s a very rich sound of music.”
She says the point is to give children the opportunity to be producers, not consumers of music. “You can use anything you can make a noise with,” Clougherty says. “You can make instruments or you can buy instruments.”
Finally, when it comes to helping toddlers develop their sense of hearing at home, let them use their voices and bodies as their instruments. You may feel silly making animal sounds or singing lyrics to your child in the car, but your toddler will grow up to appreciate tonal sounds, chords, and all the richness of music and language.