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Blog: Auditory Environments – do they enhance or detract from the learning environment?

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Thursday, 10 March, 2016

Associate Nicola Burke looks at auditory environments, from her recent research on how sound and music can enhance or detract from the learning environment, and reflects on the findings.

What does your setting sound like? Do you play recorded music? If so what style of music do you play, when do you play it and why? Do you have the radio on? If so why and who for?

In early childhood education and perhaps in primary and secondary education too, we tend to think visually and tangibly about our learning environment. There is little guidance around active music listening in early childhood education and no guidance regarding what is appropriate or inappropriate music to play to young children in early years (EY) settings.

Having visited many EY settings I have become increasingly concerned about the auditory environments I have encountered. I began researching this area and it soon became clear that this area had not been explored before.

I led a year long action research project called Tune into Listening.  Tune into Listening involved two key partners – Hillfields Children’s Centre in Coventry and Allens Croft Children’s Centre in Birmingham. Evesham Nursery School, Vale of Evesham School and St Paul's Nursery, Birmingham also participated in the project.

The research explored how to create rich music listening experiences for children and the overarching research question was:

"How can we use recorded music effectively?"

Children can listen in many manners of ways – just as children can learn in many manners of ways.   We found that some children preferred to listen whilst painting whilst others preferred to listen whilst moving, Others preferred to just listen.

We played listening games with children to explore what they could hear in music, what the music made them think of and we also explored playing music in the "background" to observe the impact the music had on the children.  The findings of the research are fascinating and wonderful – 3-year-olds described some pieces of music as “snail poo” and used phrases such as “it sounds like floating on a boat.”

The children’s preferences in how they listened were also affected by how they felt on the day, and the style of music that was played. For most of the children involved there was no set specific "way" they listened.  This is not particularly surprising as we can often listen to music in different "way"’. How we listen to music can change and can be impacted by how we feel and the style of music we are listening to. For example listening to strong ballads whilst driving and singing along may be more enjoyable than listening to them whilst exercising. The music we hear can impact how we feel and what we may be doing at any given moment.  Music can be incredibly emotive and can impact our mood – both positively and negatively. How much is this considered in early childhood education?

Music can be very emotive and the music played in settings can have an effect on children and how they feel.  Asking children “Is this happy music?” or “Is  this sad music?” as part of a listening activity can be a great starting point for listening with children to help them focus their listening, attention and to encourage active listening.  However, how music makes children feel may be more complex, it may be difficult to see the emotional impact that it can have.

On many occasions throughout the research we found that music brought children together, children who had not previously interacted with each other created a connection through music.  Music often does create a connection between people – you only have to think of football games and the chants that crowds use to unite them to see examples of this.

Music has the ability to move us, both emotionally and physically. How much is this considered in settings?

A free online resource has been created which shares the findings of our research including film footage of children’s responses.  The resource offers practical ideas and suggestions for EY educators to use recorded music effectively in settings.