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Five Games That Develop Listening Skills

1. How Many Sounds Can You Hear?
2. Isolating a Background Sound
3. Saying Sounds in a Circle
4. Identify Sounds and Make Up Sound Words
5. Mirror Speech
Books about sounds

ListeningIs there any more important skill than listening well? It is the key to communication with our children and students. It is the key to being understood, and to learning and understanding. Before I can teach, before I can speak, if I am to be heard, I must listen first.

If you have more than one child, it can get a bit noisy around the house. Living in NYC, outside sounds can be a din. Sometimes we work so hard to tune out the noise that we stop listening entirely. Or we are just listening at the surface, for the most superficial meanings of words. Remember the intense communication you had with your baby before he or she could speak? Listening is an intuitive skill — usually sharper if we know what we are listening for. Here are five children-tested games, some for a group and some you can play alone. These games will help to stop the din inside your home, and help you to separate the outside din into real sounds. Most importantly, they will help you learn to listen more closely to each other.

  1. How Many Sounds Can You Hear?

    One of the best and easiest games to play requires a moment of just sitting still to listen. Count how many sounds you can hear in 30 seconds. After you have listened for a half a minute, try it again and see if you can hear sounds that are farther away. First you may hear sounds in your own home, then in a neighbor’s apartment, then in the rest of the building, then outside, then on another street, and so on. You can play this game indoors or outdoors, and even in the car while you are moving. Afterward share your sounds, or if you are alone write them down. You can lengthen the time to a minute or more if you like. You may be surprised at just how much you hear!
    Variation: During bird migration season, or on any summer day at dawn or dusk, head over to the ramble in Central Park or any birding station. Close your eyes for 30 seconds and count how many different bird songs you can hear. Try it again for a full minute. You might be surprised how many different birds you can isolate in a single minute!

  2. Isolating a Background Sound

    Listen to music, perhaps something you haven’t heard before, and try to pick out just one instrument from the band or orchestra and concentrate on that one sound. With practice, this one instrument can sound louder than the others, and you can pick up background sounds that you would have missed without such careful listening. This is fun to do with classical music, but any type of music will work. Can you pick out just the cello in a string quartet? Just the French horn in a symphony orchestra? After you are able to concentrate on the background sound for a few moments, then let it go and hear the blend of all the instruments again. Allow the sound to fade into the background. This is a game that can be played in the car using the radio. If you play it in a group, discuss which sound you chose and how you think it sounded when it seemed louder.

  3. Saying Sounds in a Circle

    A small group sits in a circle and one person goes out of the room. Choose a well-known phrase or saying with the same number of words as there are people sitting in the circle. For example, with a circle of six people you might use: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, or May the Force Be With You or Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, or any other phrase that everyone agrees the absent person (or guesser) would know.

    Version One: Each person in the circle is given a word in the saying and instructed to chant the word simultaneously. These words can be in order or mixed up, but each person chants only one word so that every word in the saying is heard at the same time. When the absent person enters the circle the chanting begins softly. The person can turn toward any player to listen more carefully before guessing the saying. You can choose to limit the number of guesses per person, or allow as many guesses as needed.

    Version Two: Select a phrase with the same number of syllables as people in the circle. Instead of separating the words and chanting them individually, separate the syllables. Choose a phrase with some long words. For example, for six people you could use the phrase “Madison Avenue,” and each person would chant their assigned syllable at the same time. In a large class, each small group would chant their syllable in the same tone. The guesser enters the circle or goes from group to group, trying to figure out the word and guessing as often as necessary or agreed upon.

    Version Three: Each person in the circle is given a word in the saying, so that everyone has a different word. But instead of speaking or chanting, they wait quietly. The guesser enters the circle and may ask any player any question. In each answer, the player must use their word from the saying. Example for Slow and Steady Wins the Race. First player is asked: What did you have for breakfast? Answer: “I was moving too slow to make coffee so I skipped breakfast entirely because I was late.” (Note, the correct use of slow here would be slowly, but that would be playing the game incorrectly. You must use the word as it is used in the saying.) The guesser then has the right to ask that same player another question, which must be answered with a sentence that uses the word “slow.” After asking every player in the circle as many questions as wanted or agreed upon, the player in the center guesses the saying.

  4. Identify Sounds and Make Up Sound Words

    This game can include reading and writing. To warm up for this game, define a sound word and create a list. Include words like: beat, bang, crash, boom, pow, thud, whisper. After you have made a list, explain that together you will find and create more words. The child or children will close their eyes while an adult makes sounds (using ordinary objects or simple instruments) and then the children will make up a word to describe that sound. An example should be shown first with their eyes open so that they know how the game is played. For example, a book can be opened and slammed shut. Then everyone can say what that sound is — such as a realistic phrase “a book being slammed shut” or a known sound word like “thud” or a made-up word spelled phonetically such as “buhhh”. Encourage them to use their imaginations! The more made-up words or imagined phrases the better! For example, a piece of paper being crumpled and uncrumpled (unseen) might end up as: “kreshkerumpahkrah” or “the sound of boots crunching on snow.” Continue making sounds invisibly (after the words are created you can reveal how the sound was made), using objects at hand (rattling a box of pencils or paper clips, banging a pot with a lid) or blow a whistle or recorder, clack a castanet, ring a bell, etc. After making up your own sound words and phrases, read some sound poems (City Sounds) or a book that uses sound words (The Cricket in Times Square) or a poem using made-up words ("Jabberwocky").

  5. Mirror Speech

    In this game, invented by Viola Spolin, you have to speak and listen at the same time! Two players face each other and choose a subject to talk about. One player starts the conversation and the other player mirrors the words out loud as they are being said, and also mirrors any actions or gestures as they occur. Then the roles are reversed, without pause, and the second person initiates the conversation while it is mirrored out loud along with any movements.
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Other games include Telephone, and When I Get to California. If you have a favorite listening game to share, let us know!

Sound is a part of our everyday life, so much so that we tend to take it all for granted. Yet our sense of hearing provides us with important information, and can also be the source for inspiration and creativity. When you take a moment to stop and smell the flowers, remember to also listen to the birds!

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Books about sounds:


Stories and images:

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See also Field Trips on Music and Sound in NYC, including Laurie's own guide to the Metropolitan Museum for Sounds in Art and Family and Kids' Concerts, a list so good it could only be in NYC.

Articles on Play by Laurie Block Spigel

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