Winter Listening Walks

by Sophie Mustoe-Playfair – Speech and Language Therapist
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What sounds can you hear when you go for a walk? Rustling leaves, snapping twigs, and the wind whistling through the nearby trees? The click-clack of pebbles and roar of the waves as you walk along the beach? Or maybe the sounds of people talking, the hum of the nearby traffic, and water splashing as you jump in all the puddles on the pavement?

Listening walks are a wonderful activity for building attention and listening skills. They provide an opportunity for children to explore the information that they can glean from listening and how many more things the child can notice when they are focussing their attention. They also encourage children to practice extending their attention for a little longer each time and controlling their attention by directing it towards different sources.

By playing with sounds in a real-world environment, we encourage children to think about what they are hearing and recognise that sounds are important. And sounds are really important – they give us information that might keep us safe (e.g. hearing a car coming before we cross the road), they alert us to changes (e.g. the ‘ping’ that tells us the microwave has finished), and they help us to communicate (e.g. when we are talking).

Good listening skills are the foundation for speech and language development. Without listening to others talking, children cannot learn language skills. If children are not able to hear the sounds that make up words, they will not learn how to produce those sounds clearly when they are talking. Listening to the sounds that make up words is also essential for learning to read and write – we need to be able to hear sounds and map them onto letters.

So how can you turn your everyday trip outside into a ‘listening walk’?

The first step is simply to go outside for a walk. Your walk could take place anywhere: it could be a walk around the garden or local park, a walk to the local shop, or you could venture further afield to a woodland or a beach. Allowing your child to choose where you go can be a great way to capture their attention and motivate them to do some good listening.

Next, talk about all the things that good listeners do. We need to keep quiet, have our ears ready to listen, and our eyes ready to look for clues.

Then, you can point out all the sounds you can hear, one at a time, and encourage your child to do the same. You might hear rustling leaves, something crunching under your feet, squelching mud, splashing puddles, birds singing, raindrops dripping – the list is endless. When you hear a sound, encourage your child to think about where or what the sound is coming from. You could also talk about the features of the sounds: was it loud or quiet; short or long; is it coming from nearby or far away? This will help your child to learn about early concepts. On your walk, stop often and in lots of different places. Try closing your eyes (if it’s safe to do so!), which can help us to concentrate on the sounds around us.

To keep the activity interesting, try visiting lots of different places on your listening walks, although remember that you don’t need to go far. Make sure that your child is having fun and stop when they’ve had enough. Because you don’t need to bring any equipment or resources with you, this is a great activity to do in short bursts.

Our tips for a fun listening walk:

  • Try using a gesture to cue your child to start listening again when their attention drifts away e.g. call their name and cup your hand around your ear.
  • If your child likes a competition, why not see who can find the most sounds? Or who can find a new sound that you haven’t heard before?
  • You can try making different sounds with the natural materials you find too. Talk about how the leaves sound when you stomp on them and when you shuffle through them, or how a stick sounds when it’s snapped and when it’s dragged on the ground.
  • Listening walks can be great for developing early reasoning skills, like predicting and making inferences, too! Before you head out the door, see if your child can predict what sounds they expect to hear (this will be easier if you are going somewhere familiar). When you’re outside, talk about where sounds are coming from to help children make links.
  • To keep the activity going, you could take pictures of the sources of different sounds. Can your child copy the sound, or find that same sound in a different place? Or, you could record some sounds on your phone and listen to them at home – can your child remember where the sounds were coming from?