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Deep Listening: Sound Maps

Updated: Sep 13, 2018

When you are on the go, with children particularly, there is nothing like a low prep learning activity. Sound Maps are just that, requiring no more than a pencil and something to write on, their simplicity reminds me that sharing science with youngsters need not be daunting or dependent upon a lengthy supply list. Bonus: your children will sit quietly enthralled with this one, aka a moment of peace (for everyone!)

A Sound Map is a visual record of the sounds one hears within a given area. They can be a mini meditation for yourself or students, a safety awareness tool - how can we train ourselves to tune in and really know our surroundings 360 degrees around, or a full on study with comparing habitats, predictions and sharing those results with a class or family. You can do these during the day or night (comparing day sounds to night?), and in urban or wild areas.

The Basic Set Up:

Each person has a piece of paper/writing surface and a writing tool.

Mark a spot for the center, or your/their location. Kids often like to see a little person there representing them, yet a X also marks the spot. (Depending upon the age and purpose for this activity you or they can add in a compass of where they are in relation to North South East West, think older children learning geography, or how to use a compass/GPS etc...

Remind the participant that the X or person represents where they are within their special place. The area in front of the mark represents the area in front of them and what sounds they hear there, the space behind them what sounds they hear behind them, to the sides, etc...

As the participant hears a sound, s/he makes a mark on the paper to represent it. Swirly lines for the wind, or they could write the word wind, a picture of a car for traffic, or they could write the word traffic etc.... Where their picture/word is placed on the paper indicates the direction and distance of the sound is from the player’s self.

If they are drawing rather than writing words, remind the children that they are making a quick mark to record a sound, not a detailed illustration. With children I find showing them an example of a Sound Map I made earlier helps them to see the simplicity here. They know I love to artistically embellish, so to see that I added a literal music note to signal chirping birds gives them a clear image.

"Fox" ears are a fun option to guide children towards deepening their listening and focus. You make "fox" ears by cupping your hands behind your ears. Aside from being playful, the hand position will actually create a greater surface area to capture surrounding sounds. Fox ears facing forward picks up forward sounds. To tune into the sounds behind them they can cup the hands in front of their ears (palms facing backwards).

There are a few different ways to go about finding a listening place. If this is a one time mini activity then simply find an interesting spot to sit, listen, and record.

Students can select their own spot or you could "assign" a spot by creating a map of your area and give your kiddos a few min to find their listening spot based upon their location on your class map. Either way it's important to set a time limit, just to keep those restless participants from walking around too long or disturbing the rest of the group. Also ahead of time let students know they will stay in their listening place until you signal that it is over. I hoot like an owl a few times - a chime, whistle, or simply saying, "gather up," all work!

If you are comparing or contrasting different habitats, one time you could find a spot by a stream, another by a meadow, another time in a forest. You can predict which habitat will have a greater diversity of sound, why you think this, or what sounds you may hear in each etc...

For me, as a mini meditation, I just like to do this wherever I am when I pause. Maybe a rocky mountain top, or a city park. It's always fascinating to take a moment to really hear and become aware of our surroundings.

How Long? You listen long enough to still our busy nature, to really tune into the area around you/your students. For little ones, 4-6 min of complete silence is a LONG time, for upper elementary age 8-10 min is good, for adults, it could be 15 min. Either way if you are guiding a group your job is to quietly walk about and notice the pace and atmosphere. You want this to be an activity they want to return to, not one they associate with endless sitting; it's a balance. I'd rather end a bit earlier than I planned, and have them excited to share, rather than exhaust the activity.

Some reflections either to journal, or share in discussion are:

Were there any sounds which surprised you? Why?

Were there familiar sounds? When/where have you heard them before?

Do you know what made certain sounds? How do you know this?

Which sounds did you like best? Why?                                                                                      

Traditionally these are done alone, as listening needs quiet; however, these can be team work activities given the proper set up. For some young children especially doing this alone may just be too much that first time, a multi-age 1-2 yr older buddy can really enrich the process.

I've done these with children in a class setting as young as 4/5, yet often find adults, who have forgotten how to pause and listen, are their biggest fans. With your littles ones ages 3-4 you can do this, just as a shared one on one partnered activity, where the adult is there guiding and documenting with and for the child, modeling and co-creating the experience.

Although I LOVE sharing these with others, personally, humanly, tenderly, I like to do them by myself, for myself. As Alan Watts shares, in Nature, Man and Woman, "perhaps reason for this partnership with wild nature, is that it restores to us a level of our own human nature at which we are all still sane, free from humbug, and untouched by anxieties about the adult meaning of our lives. . . nature gives us new eyes for ourselves."

As cliche as it sounds, anytime I spend listening to the landscape around me, and allow myself to really sink into knowing each groove and expanse, I am a bit better at doing so with myself too. Be it body awareness, in checking in, how really do my hips feel today? That neck ache? What's that about? And in my thoughts and feelings. Sometimes after a Sound Map I map out my emotions. There is great joy, where is that coming from? Or is this anger or sadness, or what really is behind this thought and why?

I'd love to credit this activity, for it's certainly not mine, yet it's hard to pin down the originator. I've done this as a graduate student with David Sobel, a Place Based Education author, professor, and powerhouse of a wild play enthusiast. I've done this with the Teacher Learning Center through the Teton Science Schools, and I've found reference to it in these in a variety of nature curriculum texts such as Project Wild, as well as in Joseph Cornell's work on sharing nature with children. The chicken and the egg? Like a solid bread recipe, each "source" offers a slightly different take on it, yet, essentially they all deliver a great loaf. Perhaps the originator for Sound Maps is older than any of the above. I treasure that each are out there sharing this activity with others.

"Yes, the earth speaks, but only to those who can hear with their hearts. It speaks in a thousand, thousand small ways, but like our lovers and families and friends, it often sends its messages without words. For you see, the earth speaks in the language of love. Its voice is in the shape of a new leaf, the feel of a water-worn stone, the color of the evening sky, the smell of the summer rain, the sound of the night wind." Steve Van Matre, The Earth Speaks

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