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How to Create an Environment that Promotes Active Listening

Being quiet is one of the hardest things to do – at least for me. I think most people have a natural tendency to want to talk to others, and sometimes even themselves! For most of us, talking is much more than just a means of communicating or expressing ourselves. Talking is a way of connecting with others, being members of the world around us, and finding our own unique voice in that world. That’s certainly what it was for my mom who could talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything, for long periods of time, without ever getting tired.

Growing up, this was a blessing and a curse for me. Because my mom spoke to me all the time, I came to understand the natural rise and fall of language – the music of language, if you will - at an early age. When her voice went up at the end of a phrase, followed by a pause, I understood that she was asking a question. When she leaned in and spoke in hushed tones, I understood she was whispering. On the other hand, because my mom was an ebullient talker who also loved to play music all the time, my ears were constantly bombarded with sound, so I didn’t have a chance to develop my active listening skills until I was about 13 years old!

It’s not my mom’s fault. She did what most of us do with our children – we show our love and care by talking to them . . . often a bit too much. We don’t realize we’re doing it. We certainly don’t intend to do it, but by talking too much, we actually shut down our children’s ears rather than open them up. When we wonder why our children don’t (or can’t) listen, one of the reasons may be that we haven’t given them an environment that’s conducive to active listening. What kind of environment is that? One in which silence is as important as sound!

By giving our children the gift of silence, we fling open the door to our children’s aural development. We invite in active listening. We ask it to pull up a chair and stay a while as our children tune in to specific sounds around them (like the pattern of a bird chirping, the hum of a neighbor’s lawnmower or the melody of a song playing on the radio). Once they can hone in on a specific sound, children can then learn to identify and mimic those sounds. Later, they can use this knowledge (and ability) to discriminate between sounds that are important for them to hear and mere background noise (which is an invaluable life skill, wouldn’t you say?).

By creating an environment in which silence is given as much weight as sound, we also serve as model listeners for our children. If we value listening, they will too. If we demonstrate that there is a time and a place for silence in our daily lives (just as much as there are times and places for talking, singing, music making, playing with friends, reading, doing sports, going to school, and engaging in other activities), they will also leave room for silence in their daily routines.

How do we create an environment at home that promotes active listening? Here are a five fun things you can do:

  • Structure your day to include three 15-minute intervals of “active listening” time. During this time, abstain from talking to your child unless absolutely necessary. Let them play independently (with your supervision) and listen to their surroundings.

  • Throughout the day, find opportunities to identify sounds you hear. Identify each sound and do your best to mimic it. Sooner or later, your child will start to do the same. A wonderful way to do this is to take a walk together. No matter where you live – in the city, the suburbs, or a rural community - there are sounds all around you! When you hear a noise, point to your ear and say “I hear a [bird, truck, airplane, etc.]. Do you hear it?” Then pause for about 10 seconds and let your child absorb the sound. After 10 seconds, mimic the sound and ask your child to make the sound too. This is not only a fabulous listening exercise, it’s a great way to be silly with your little one.

  • Allocate 15-20 minutes every day to listening to music together. I don’t mean putting on music while you’re driving from playdate to playdate or having music on in the background while you prepare dinner. The purpose of this exercise is to listen actively, intently, and exclusively, without disruptions. As you listen to the music, tap the rhythm on your knees or on your child’s body so they feel a “whole-body beat” as they are listening to the music. In time, your child will be able to find the beat on his/her own. You can also do this exercise by marching in time, clapping in time, swaying in time, or doing any other movement that establishes a steady beat without obscuring the music.

Julian singing and moving to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star at 22 months

  • When you speak to your toddler, face him/her and enunciate clearly. Show him or her how you position your mouth and tongue to make certain sounds. This exercise will not only facilitate your child’s language and verbal development, it will help him/her start to distinguish sounds (e.g., the difference between a “t” and a “p” or an “f” and an “s”).

Thanks for listening!

Marlene Markard

Owner, Markard Music, an early childhood music education studio


If you liked this post, you may like my blog post, Now Hear This! How Music Can Help Your Child Learn to Listen

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