Can you repeat that?
At VersaMe’s original office in Palo Alto, we worked right across the street from the train tracks. Inevitably, once or twice an hour the entire office would pause as the train’s noise temporarily rendered us incapable of concentrating on work. Not only was the whistle loud, but the sheer size of the train resulted in some earth-shaking sounds! It’s no coincidence that our new office space is in a quieter part of town.
Now, it’s one thing to deal with occasional train noise as an adult, but did you know that noise plays a huge role in how young children learn? For early learners, environmental noise is more than just an annoyance. Common effects of chronic noise exposure include problems with attention, speech perception, memory, and school performance.
According to Bridget Shield and Julie Dockrell, the authors of the scholarly review “The Effects of Noise on Children,” an estimated 40% of children in elementary school in the US may have some form of hearing impairment. They say that many parents don’t realize that their child does not have to have permanent hearing damage to be temporarily hearing impaired. The common cold or an ear infection can be just as debilitating, at least temporarily, on your child’s hearing.1
In fact, the younger your child is, the greater the detrimental effect of noise and echoes. Add on any speech and language difficulties (which, by the way, can arise because of excessive environmental noise) and it can become even more difficult for your child to learn. The kicker? Shield and Dockrell report that noise levels in nursery schools are significantly higher than in primary and secondary schools.1
Shield and Dockrell’s conclusions are difficult to hear (no pun intended). It’s next to impossible to find the resources to avoid big sources of environmental noise. We would have to move away from roads, train tracks, and flight paths to avoid these transportation sounds that make up the bulk of background clatter. However, there still are many ways we can limit the amount of noise pollution affecting our babies and toddlers.
An easy first step is to find a quiet space at home or make one by minimizing controllable environmental noise (like turning off the TV that’s on in the background). Fill it with pillows, a comfy chair, and a big stack of books. Set time aside each day to read with your child in her very own “reading nook.” By reading together in an environment free from major background noise, your baby will get more out of storytime because it will be easier for her to understand your words.
This experience will become especially important once your child begins reading on her own. According to a study published by the National Institute of Health, once children entered primary school, children with poor reading skills performed significantly worse than children with normal reading abilities when noise was present.2 By creating a quiet space for reading, you give your child a real boost in reading and oral comprehension ability.
From there, seek out ways to lessen background noise in your day-to-day environment. When you’re driving around town, turn off the radio and talk to your baby instead. If it’s nice outside, plop on a hat, head to the park, and set up camp below a shady tree. With fresh air and minimal traffic noise, parks can be a great go-to.
Before you go soundproofing your whole neighborhood, remember that a “quiet” space with limited environmental background noise does not have to remain silent once you enter. Actually, the whole point is to fill that space up with your own intentional noise like talking, singing, playing, and laughing. The key is to find the right balance between background noise and focused sound. And no, you don’t need to start measuring decibel levels to get this right. If your baby starts getting distracted by environmental auditory cues, that’s likely a sign that there isn’t enough contrast between your voice and the sounds around you. If she’s consistently engaging with you, you are probably in a balanced auditory environment.
- Shield, Bridget M., and Julie E. Dockrell. 2003. “The Effects of Noise on Children at School: A Review.” Building Acoustics. 10(2): 1-19. doi: 10.1260/135101003768965960.
- Lewis, Dawna, Brenda Hoover, Sangsook Choi, and Patricia Stelmachowicz. 2010. “The Relationship Between Speech Perception in Noise and Phonological Awareness Skills for Children with Normal Hearing.” National Institute of Health. 31(6):1-8. doi:10.1097/AUD.0b013e3181e5d188.