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Discover the Science of Outside Sounds



Have you ever watched your child’s face when she steps outside? Especially now, while many children are at home during shelter in place orders.

Dogs barking, birds singing, the leaves rustling and swishing in the wind—all the sounds of the great outdoors take center stage in the young child’s sensory world.

“Why is the swing making that weird sound?” “Why do birds sing so much?” Don’t let a “Why?” go by. The best answer to questions like these is, “That’s a great question—let’s find out!” Over time, you’ll help them discover an ever-expanding awareness about the sounds of their world.

Try these activities from Exploring the Science of Sounds to learn about outside sounds in your own backyard.


THE SOUNDS OF RAIN

Notice that this exploration is about the sounds of rain—plural. Rain can be anything from a light dripdrop to a torrential downpour. It can be a frightening sound, especially when it comes on suddenly .. . or a soothing one when it’s quiet and you’re going to sleep at night. Rain makes different sounds depending on where it lands, too—on the roof of a car, on treetops filled with leaves, on pavement, or on pools and puddles. Exploring these sounds gives children lots to think about—especially in the areas of loudness and timbre.

What You’ll Need

  • A rainy day
  • Plastic pails, buckets, containers, and cups—one item for each child
  • Big (metal) soup pot

Activity to Try

1. It’s a beautiful rainy day! Tell your child you’re going out in the rain to listen to its sounds. Have your child get into his rain gear and give him a pail or other container.

2. When you’re outside, ask your child to let the rain fall into his pail. Ask him how it sounds—is it loud or soft? Ask if he can hear the individual raindrops hitting the bottom of the pail. Maybe he  could make up words to describe the sounds he hears; you could get the ball rolling by describing the rain falling into your pail as sounding like “dup dup dup” or “plink plink.” (Making up words for these rain sounds helps children to listen more closely.) 

3. Have your child place his pail down on the ground. Suggest he tilt his head up to face the rain coming down. Ask him how the rain sounds when it hits his face—does it sound the same as the rain in the pail?

4. Have your child listen to how the rain sounds when it hits other objects outside.

5. Ask your child to look for a good puddle. He can try stepping in the puddle and jumping in it. He can also toss pebbles in it, and stir the puddle-water with sticks.

 

Questions to Ask

• How did the rain sound when it fell on your face? What about when it fell in the empty pail?

• Which was louder, tossing pebbles in the puddle, or jumping in the puddle yourself? Why?

• Did the rain always sound exactly the same?

• Why didn’t it always sound the same?

 

Discoveries to Make

• Rain has different timbres, depending on what kind of object or material it falls on.

• More forceful movements will produce louder sounds.

 


A WALK FOR LISTENING AND UNDERSTANDING

The idea of a “listening walk” is nothing new, and calling children’s attention to the variety of sounds outside is always valuable. It promotes their ability to focus, as well as their appreciation for the sounds of nature. After children have done some exploration in the science of sounds, a listening walk can be an even richer experience. This activity helps children apply their scientific reasoning to understand the sounds they hear, to hear familiar sounds in new ways, and to become even more curious about the world around them.

What You’ll Need

  • A notebook and a pen or pencil, for yourself

Activity to Try

1. Before you go outside, explain that you’re going on a special “listening walk.” Explain that you want your child to listen very carefully to all of the sounds outside. She may hear sounds that are very familiar and can also try to find sounds she hasn’t noticed  before. When she hears a sound, she can tell you, and you’ll write it down so you can talk about it later. 

2. When you’re outside, model quiet, attentive listening—don’t speak if it’s not necessary. Walking around the backyard is fine; you don’t need to go far to hear a lot of sounds! Jot down the sounds your child tells you about. To respond, try to just raise your eyebrows and nod in appreciation, rather than speaking.

3. Engage your child in a discussion about the sounds she heard.

 

Questions to Ask

• When your child mentions a sound she heard, you could ask:

• Where did the sound come from?

• Was it soft or loud?

• Why do you think it sounded soft (or loud)?

• How far away do you think the sound was? Why?

• Did the sound have a pitch, like (sing a few notes, “la la la”), or was it an unpitched sound like a motor or a knock on a door?

• Was the sound’s timbre sharp, like metal, or flat, like plastic, or was the timbre more like a voice?

• Did the sound have a beat, like a song or a bouncing ball?

• Tell your child that when you discuss different features of something, like we talked about the loudness, timbre, and pitch of each sound, that’s called analyzing. Tell them they analyzed the sounds they heard.

 

Discoveries to Make

• The world is filled with many different kinds of sounds.

• Children can analyze sounds by talking about their various features, such as loudness, tempo, pitch, and timbre.

 


SINGING BIRDS

There are two kinds of bird singing—songs and calls. Songs are used for courtship and mating, while calls are used more for alarms and keeping a flock together. Young children are usually very interested in birds and their songs. Encourage children’s interest in birds, especially birds that are part of your local ecosystem.

What You’ll Need

  • To prepare for this activity, it helps to have a guide to bird songs and calls. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent website, “All About Birds,” at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search. It includes information on how to identify each bird species, videos, and audio of songs and calls. Many websites can tell you the birds in your state or region.
  • The company Wild Republic makes Audubon plush birds in a variety of species. The birds were created in conjunction with the Audubon Society and feature recordings of songs from the Cornell Lab. (They sing when gently squeezed.) They’re adorable and most are under ten dollars. They’re certainly not necessary for this activity, but they’re nice to have to help your child remember “his bird.”

Activity to Try

Ahead of Time:

Decide on a bird to focus on in this activity. It’s a special experience for young children to learn to recognize the appearance and song of one bird. Hopefully she’ll be excited to learn about more birds, but there’s plenty to learn about and experience with just one. Make sure you know when the bird you’ve chosen will be in your area, if it’s not year-round. (If you know of a certain species with a nest near your home, so much the better!)

With the Children:

1. Talk to your child about the bird you’ll be watching and listening for, such as a robin. Show her a photo of the bird. You can point out its features, especially its rounded shape and orange-red front. Explain that each kind of bird has its own special song, and that when we see a robin outside, you’ll hear it singing its robin song.

2. If you have one of the Audubon plush birds, show it to your child, but let her discover the song for herself, outside, from real birds, before you share the toy’s song with her.

3. Take your child outside and have a “robin hunt.” It shouldn’t take long before a robin is spotted. Does she hear the bird’s song? Ask your child to listen quietly.

4. It’s very exciting for her to “find” a robin and hear it sing. Ask her if she can copy the song. Robins sing in a much higher pitch than we do, but the rhythm is easy to copy. (Supposedly it sounds like “cheer up, cheer up, cheer up.”)

5. When your child wants to talk to the robin in its “language,” don’t discourage them. When they do this, they usually feel a bond with the bird, which is wonderful.  It’s also a way to play in nature.

 

Questions to Ask

• Do you remember the robin’s song?

• Did the robin sing in a high or low pitch?

• Without a photo or toy visible, ask, “Do you remember what the robin looked like?”

• Why do you think the robin sang in a high pitch?

• Do you think a bigger bird, like a turkey, would have a lower-pitched song?

• (If she’s not sure, you can go online with her and find out!)

 

Discoveries to Make

• Each kind of bird has its own song.

• The relationship between size and pitch applies to birds as well as objects.




More Activities to Try


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