Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sight & Sound


Surrounded by mylar and paper, every movement makes a sound.

This year, we are exploring SOUND throughout our center as our umbrella project. This has, of course, taken different forms in different classrooms. In the infant rooms, the emphasis has been on offering materials that make sounds when manipulated – crinkly mylar and paper, drums, shakers, etc. The teachers have also been paying attention to the sounds that the babies make, as well as the specific sounds (both in the classroom environment and elsewhere) that the babies seem to notice and investigate. Many of the toddler rooms have been thinking about sound in relation to instruments, singing, and performing in one way or another – from an interest in the Beatles that developed from a love of “Yellow Submarine,” to trying to identify musical instruments and artists from sound alone, to being in a band themselves, to creating their own instruments. One group of toddler teachers, noticing the ways in which the sounds animals make were an important signifier for their children (who love animals), have begun to listen to animal sounds with the children as a way of continuing this thread.  Another group has been thinking about the way sound relates to cause and effect – when something happens (a ball rolling through a tube, a toy dropped on the ground, a shovel of sand dumped into a bowl), there is often a sound that accompanies it. The preschoolers’ investigations included exploring the different sounds that paper can make when it is manipulated in different ways during some visits to the Studio, as well as games with trying to match different sounds and experiments with how sound travels and changes through different materials.
Paper becomes an instrument.

Recently, I have been thinking about the way that sight and sound are linked. This first popped into my head back in December when I went on a nighttime river walk with a group of children and their teacher. It was dark (daylight savings style), and we brought flashlights with us to light our way. Part of our discussion as we walked along was about looking for animals who might be hiding or nesting nearby. As we made our way down to the riverbank, we shined our flashlights back and forth into the trees and grasses, looking for creatures. Did we see any? No. But something else happened – the children began to hear things. Rather than the usual process of pointing at things to ask “What is that?,” the children were cocking their heads and asking, “What is that sound?” They were noticing noises that weren’t necessarily new (cars rushing by on the road, branches knocking together in the wind, water lapping at the shore, geese honking in the distance), but that had gone unremarked in the light of day. This brought to mind that idea that “losing” or dampening one sense causes the others to be sharpened. With less visibility, the children were relying more on their hearing to explore and “see” the world around them.

Shining a light to try to identify a sound in the bushes.
This idea of “seeing” with your ears rather than your eyes actually goes much deeper than this. The research of Lore Thaler, Stephen Arnott, and Melvyn Goodale has found that the use of echolocation by some blind people actually activates their visual cortex, essentially helping them to create a sort of image in their brain through the use of sound. The artist Neil Harbisson, transformed the different colors of the spectrum (and some that are even beyond human vision) into audible frequencies, allowing him to effectively “listen” to them. There have actually been studies that show a consistent correlation between music, emotion, and color for listeners, suggesting that these associations are culturally significant in the US and Mexico, and, perhaps, with time may be found to be universal.  This, for me, connects to a provocation that I have often offered to children over the years: listening to music and thinking about it visually. What sorts of lines or movements would you make with a paintbrush on paper to capture this song? What colors would you choose for this music?

One of the things that I value about an umbrella project is that it offers us a unique lens through which to look at (and listen to!) children's play. Because of our emphasis on sound this year, I have found myself picking up on the ways in which this topic has surfaced in children's play and conversations, and I know many other teachers have as well. It also has led me to make connections between the things that happen day to day at school and my understanding of sound in the broader world, much in the same way that our curriculum for children strives to relate to their lives beyond our walls. I think the next step for many of us this year and in years to come is to take these individual moments and conversations and build upon them, deepening our exploration of sound into something beyond noticing and questioning and into hypothesizing, experimenting, and theorizing.

What possible "next steps" could you imagine for the children who went on the night walk? For children who are interested in different instruments and performance? For infants who are encountering many materials for the first time? 

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