What are environmental sounds and how can they help toddlers learn to talk?

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Environmental sounds are everywhere – they’re everything from a refrigerator humming to a bird chirping outside to a heart beating or a voice. For babies and toddlers, environmental sounds can be a way to introduce language or encourage language development.

Research shows children need to hear 21,000 words in a day. Environmental sounds are a great way to find something new to talk about, use words you might not use otherwise in a normal conversation, and encourage exploration with your toddler.

Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) Laura Mize works with ages 0-3. In Laura’s blog, she says, “Play sounds or sound effects can be an important ‘in between’ step for lots of late talkers before they begin to try to imitate real words.”

She suggests using whatever play sounds motivate your child. It could be animal sounds, cars and trucks, or sirens (my son loves to make “whoosh” sounds for airplanes). Laura also suggests people sounds like a yawn, cough, sneeze, slurp, exhale, or snoring.

MED-EL (a hearing implant company) has a great set of tips for using environmental sounds:

  • When you hear a sound, draw your child’s attention to it. Say “Listen, I hear that,” and look to where the sound is coming from. Point to your ear to show that you are listening for a sound. Verbally imitate or recreate the sound to help your child figure out where the sound is coming from, for example a door knocking or a microwave timer ringing.
  • It is important to remember that many of these sounds also carry a particular purpose or meaning. For example, when your child hears a door bell, they need to know the next step is to open the door and welcome a visitor. You could try a prompt such as “I hear the microwave alarm go! Let’s take out the food!” or “I heard the timer ring. Are the cookies baked and ready?”
  • Draw your child’s attention to all the different sounds that can be heard inside and outside. For example running water, whirring fans, wind blowing in the trees, traffic noises, doorbells, the TV and radio.
  • Expose your child to sounds of different loudness level and talk about them. Find or create sounds that are loud—doors slamming or dogs barking, and those that are quiet—a clink of car key or a tick of a watch. (from Medel.com)

Play using environmental sounds doesn’t just help kids. It’s an opportunity for us to stop what we’re doing and bring our attention to what’s happening right in front of us. Psychologists call it “mindfulness” when you can set aside your thoughts, relax, and be present in what’s happening that moment. So, not only are you doing an activity that’s helping your child learn, it might also have a positive affect on you!