18 May 2017

Noise and young ears

From Our Changing World, 9:08 pm on 18 May 2017

Young children at play are boisterous – and loud. Put 20 of them together in a childcare centre and the result is a lot of noise. Hard reflective surfaces, such as easy-to-clean floors and walls which reflect the sound, just make matters worse.

Stuart McLaren, an acoustic researcher in the School of Public Health at Massey University, has been researching the issue of noise and childcare centres for many years.

Stuart's research area has a personal motivation. He says he has a special needs child who struggled in noisy environments, and he was motivated to work with staff at different childcare centres to come up with easy ways to mitigate noise.

Child's ear

A child's hearing doesn't develop fully until they are about 12-years old. Photo: CC BY 2.0 Travis Isaacs / Flickr

She Hansfield is the supervisor at Polyhigh, a childcare centre next to Massey University’s Wellington campus. She is proud of a new outdoor ‘room’, which features safety matting overlaid with astroturf.

Sue says that when they first made the outdoor room “it had a concrete floor. The sound just echoed off the roof and the ground and it was too noisy.”

She says that the noise used to be overbearing, teachers found it stressful and there were times that children were putting their hands over their ears to block it out.

“We created this room to decrease the noise level, and it’s working really well,” says Sue. “The children and the teachers are using it more because it’s not so noisy”

Stuart says that a good school sound environment “is one where noise is at a level that won’t unduly interfere with speech or communication, nor cause any child attending undue stress or harm.”

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Photo: Public domain

Acoustic expert Wyatt Page explains that children have different hearing to adults, as it takes about 12 years for our hearing to mature. He says that it takes about two years for our ears and hearing system to fully develop, and then another 10 years for auditory processing in our brain to reach maturity.

Young kids, says Wyatt, children can struggle to listen and are often described as “immature listeners, which means they have difficulty communicating if there is lot of background noise. They can’t easily screen that noise out, which is also an issue when we get older.”

Because of this he says it especially important to keep noise levels down around children as that helps with their communication.

Sue and her staff are keen to do more work to reduce sound in the main internal area at the preschool. One initiative that Stuart and Wyatt thinks has good potential is to create sound-absorbing panels made from bricks of compressed shredded paper, made from recycling the children’s artworks.

If you are interested in the area of noise and acoustic research, Our Changing World recently featured Wyatt Page introducing the Sound Lab and talking about measuring the volume of audio on personal headphones.