By Craig Valency, MA, CSCS

Introduction

As I discussed in my introductory post, the missing link to true movement mastery is learning the 9 perceptual-motor skills as early as possible.

As fitness professionals, teachers, therapists, or parents, we have a unique opportunity to even the playing field by offering every child we work with an ideal environment to explore movement through all their senses.

These skills lay the foundation for an increased movement vocabulary with overall better coordination and the ability to learn the fundamental movement skills. With this foundation firmly in place, children are better equipped and more likely to engage in sports and recreational activities for a lifetime.

Here is a bird’s eye view of the 9 perceptual-motor skills we’re looking at in this series:

  • Body: Understand the parts of the bodies and how they move
  • Directional: Differentiate between the left and right sides of the body and move in all planes of motion
  • Spatial: Has a sense of how much space one’s body takes up and moves comfortably around other people and objects
  • Temporal: Has a sense of timing and rhythm
  • VisualCan visually focus and track objects
  • VestibularDevelop an internal sense of their body’s position in relation to gravity
  • Auditory: Can accurately respond to sound
  • Tactile: Can respond to touch in competitive situations to counter a move, as in wrestling, or in cooperative situations to stay with a partner, as in dance
  • Proprioceptive: Interpret the internal sense of where the body is in space

Today, I’ll focus on auditory awareness and discuss why it is so important to the ability to successfully respond to audible instructions or signals. You’ll see how it can play a role in overall rhythm, coordination, and reaction, as well as the surprising link to improved reading skills! I’ll outline what it is and give specific ideas that you can use to teach auditory awareness in any youth fitness program.

What is auditory awareness?

When my wife comes home from work, she just wants silence. When she wakes up in the morning, a loud TV is not her idea of a breakfast companion, and when Pandora is playing our favorite tunes for longer than 30 minutes, she has to evacuate the building. I, on the other hand, need a constant din of background noise, or I get antsy. If I’m not listening to music while running, driving, or going to bed, I am listening to my favorite podcasts.a-cd-player-1336514-m

You may have figured out that we each have a very different tolerance for noise. She’s more sensitive, and I’m less sensitive to sounds of any kind. She is much more sound aware, whereas I can be oblivious to auditory signals; they just blend into the background.

Being able to distinguish what is too much or too little, and what is important to listen for, comes from having a good frame of reference and practice with various sounds and auditory signals, along with knowing the appropriate actions to take for each.

Sometimes, “not listening,” “not paying attention,” or “not following directions” is not so much a defiant act, as it is a result of unsuccessful auditory processing, being over or under-stimulated, or being unaware and “tuned out” to auditory cues.

Auditory awareness refers to the ability to appropriately respond to sounds that are either direct, such as directions from a teacher, coach, or fellow athlete; or indirect, such as the sound of a car’s engine, footsteps, breathing patterns, or other body movements; and the ability to quickly and accurately discriminate and interpret them for an appropriate response.boys-playing-soccer-13-793479-m

It is often just as important to be able to tune out sounds that are unimportant to us as it is to selectively zero in on the sounds that we need to be aware of. Improving auditory awareness helps make this distinction and practice easier.

Temporal awareness, or rhythm, is linked to auditory awareness, as it is important to know how to properly listen to and interpret sounds and be able to match them with the body –something you may know as dancing. This ability to successfully integrate sound and movement translates to more graceful coordinated movements in general, and surprisingly, has even been shown to improve the ability to read.

The Surprising Links Between Rhythm, Sound and Reading

Research from the Journal of Neuroscience in 2013 demonstrated that being able to successfully move to a steady beat requires synchronization between the parts of the brain that responsible for hearing and movement.

Past studies have shown a link between reading aptitude and the ability to keep a beat, as well as reading ability and the consistency of the brain’s response to sound. This new study showed that hearing is the common factor for these associations.girl-with-book-1422544-m

“Rhythm is inherently a part of music and language,” study author Nina Kraus said. “It may be that musical training, with an emphasis on rhythmic skills, exercises the auditory-system, leading to strong sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential in learning to read.” (Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus. The Ability to Move to a Beat Is Linked to the Consistency of Neural Responses to Sound. The Journal of Neuroscience, September 18, 2013 33(38)

Teaching Auditory Awareness

The first task when teaching auditory awareness is to help kids become more aware of the world of sounds around them. Do they notice the low hum of a freeway, or the sound the computer hard drives make in the classroom when no one is talking? Are they aware of how loudly they are chewing their food, or the constant clanking of their spoon on the bottom of the cereal bowl? (My wife says that I’m not!) Parents and teachers want to know.

The auditory sense can be fine-tuned by practicing skills without vision. By learning to discern predictable audible rhythmic patterns it becomes easier to sense a change in pattern, signaling a need for an appropriate response.

Studies have shown that blind people can process tactile and auditory signals better than sighted people. This is because the part of the brain that processes vision doesn’t just shut down, when it isn’t being used in a blind person. The vision center actually gets rewired, and takes over and expands the abilities of the other senses. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/superpowers-for-the-blind-and-deaf/) This phenomenon has been shown to be more easily acquired at a young age when the brain is most adaptable, or has increased neuro-plasticity (Montreal Neurological Institute / McGill University. 2004, July 23)

Knowing this, it makes sense to sharpen all of the senses through perceptual-motor training at a young age, when the preferential adaptation windows for neural development are most sensitive. Since vision is the dominant sense that most of us use to learn about the world, doing sensory awareness drills with the eyes closed is a great way to create lasting changes in all the other “hidden” senses.

Here are 11 fun ways you can improve auditory awareness in kids:

  • The sounds of silence – Silence can be deafening! We actually need to teach what silence sounds like. Living in such an over-stimulating world, it’s hard to notice the low, or even high, levels of background noise going on. Kids have no contrast to the constant noise of TVs, traffic, leaf blowers, conversations, iPods, smart phones, etc. Have the kids sit in total silence for one minute. It will seem like an hour! They will more easily notice sounds they hear after one minute of silence, and because of the contrast, those sounds may actually be perceived as much louder or intense.
  • The sounds of nature – Next have them sit outside with their eyes closed and quietly listen. sunset-over-clouds-on-lake-superior-1445454-mYou can prompt them to listen for the wind, freeway, cars, horns, footsteps, bees, flies, insects, birds, breathing, etc. Have them turn and talk to a partner about what they heard and where they think it was coming from.
  • Footsteps – This activity works on the ability to selectively listen and react to indirect auditory cues –in this case, footsteps. Have the kids partner up. Have one partner stand or sit with her eyes closed. The other child does a high knee run, either left, right, forward or backward. The child with eyes closed should listen and point as quickly as possible in the direction they think the footsteps are going. This works on auditory awareness, coupled with a reactive motor component, as she has to listen and point in reaction to the change in direction.
  • Follow that sound – Put the kids in groups of three, forming a triangle. They should all be facing the same direction. The child at the top of the triangle is the mover. The mover should have her back to the other two partners. These two partners take turns calling out the mover’s name. When she hears her name being called by the child on the left, she should shuffle to the left. When she hears it from the right, she should shuffle to the right. With a large class, this forces kids to block out sounds that don’t apply to them and listen only for the appropriate signals.
    • Variations:
      • Vary the distance the signal callers are from each other
      • Vary the distance of the signal callers to the mover
      • Use other auditory signals, such as a hand clap, foot stomp, or random words        
  • Jumping beans – This can be a whole class or small group activity. Have the class face away from the teacher, coach, or trainer. When they hear a clap, they should jump. (If the kids can see you, they can cheat by noticing when your hands are going to clap, rather than listening for the clap)
    • Variations:
      • Use other stationary movement patterns, such as skater plyos or single leg hops
      • Create a false signal they must ignore. For instance jump when you hear the clap, but not on the word, “Jump,” or vice versa.
  • Sit to stand reaction – In this drill they have to perfect their listening skills and follow a specific command. Have all the kids sit on the floor. On your command they should pop up and hold the position called out until you blow the whistle. For example, “When you hear the command, move into the position I call out.” “Ready! Stand on your right leg!” after three to five seconds, blow the whistle and have them sit down: “Ready! Balance on two hands and one foot!” etc.
    • Variations:
      • To make it easier you can tell them the position ahead of time and have them move on the command, “Go!”. For example: “When I say, ‘Go!’ you will stand up as fast as possible and balance on one leg! Go!”
      • To increase the challenge, have them start from a variety of positions: lying flat on their tummies; flat on their backs; from the crab position; from all fours; from bear crawl position; etc.
      • Arrange the kids in two lines, facing each other, so that each child is facing a partner. They can challenge their partners to see who gets up first. After a couple commands, have one partner at the end of a line go to the opposite end of the same line, and have the other students shift to a new partner. This way, everyone has a chance to partner with kids with different ability levels.
  • Scatter run whistle stops – Have the kids do various locomotion patterns, such as skips, crawls, or shuffles, in a designated area. They should try not to bump into each other while moving throughout the entire area. Call out a number. Have them quickly get in a group of that size and sit down as quickly as they can. (For example, if you call, “Three!” then three kids should form a group together and sit on the floor.) Once they get the hang of it, blow the whistle or clap your hands a specific number of times; have them get into groups of that size and sit down. This requires an extra level of attention and cognitive processing to listen for the whistle and be aware of the number of times it is blown, while still moving carefully.
  • Red Light, Green Light With a Twist– The kids should line up shoulder to shoulder at the start line. On the signal, “Go!” they should sprint (or skip, shuffle, etc.) On the signal, “Stop!” they should stop without taking an extra step. If they take a step, they have to return to the start line. In this version, they should only move on a specific type of sound. For instance, on words beginning with “G” they go, and words beginning with “S” they stop. Then reverse it to add a challenge, as they will be tempted to go on the “G” words and stop on the “S” words.
    • Variations:
      • Vowel sounds: To make it even more difficult they would have to move on a vowel sound in the middle of a word. For instance, they would go on an “o” sound, such as in “nose” and stop on an “a” sound, as in “cake.”
      • Opposite words: Use antonyms as your cues. For example, go on the cue “Black!” and stop on the cue “White!”
      • Odd & even: Go on even numbers and stop on odd numbers
      • Geography: Go on names of states, and stop on names of cities.
  • Partner mirror drills with sound focus – Kids should be partnered up. Choose a skill, such as lateral shuffles, sprints, or carioca. One child should be the leader, and the other is the follower. Most of the reactions by the follower will come from visually tracking the leader. Choose a sound for the follower to focus on while mirroring the leader, so she can become aware of other factors (aside from what she sees) to give her an edge on staying with an opponent. For instance, she could focus on breathing (heavy & fast), or footsteps (close or far, right or left, heavy or soft, quick or lunging). When they have both had a turn, have them talk to each other about what they listened for and what they noticed about those sounds. Repeat the drill, having them focus on a different sound.
    • Variations:
      • Have one partner face away from the other, so that one is looking at the other’s back. The partner in the back is the leader and shuffles side to side, while the one in front must listen and move in the direction he thinks the leader is moving.
  • I’ve got rhythm – This drill works on temporal and auditory awareness. Auditory processing is an integral part of timing and rhythm. Simply have the kids tap or clap to the beat of music with their feet or hands.
    • Variations:
      • They can also keep time with your hand claps or vocalizations instead of music
      • They can do a locomotion pattern in time with the beat of the music, your handclaps, or the beat of a drum or tambourine.
  • Agility multi-tasking – Have the kids do any ladder, agility, or change of direction speed drill. While they are doing this you should clap a certain number of times and tell them to say the number out loud.
    • Variations:
      • They can hold up the number of fingers they hear in the claps
      • They can repeat the number of claps by clapping it back themselves

Conclusion

Improving auditory awareness begins by first introducing silence. This can be a big shock and good contrast to the “connected” and noisy world that most kids live in. It is also important to have kids sit in silence and pay attention to the sounds around them that they may not have otherwise noticed. Because vision is typically the dominant sense most of us use, we have a unique opportunity to greatly improve kid’s auditory awareness of direct commands and instructions, as well as indirect cues such as footsteps and breathing patterns. Doing many of these activities with the eyes closed leads to a greater reliance on hearing as well as sharpen the awareness of audio cues and the appropriate responses.

In part 9, I’ll talk about tactile awareness, which refers to the ability to respond appropriately to touch. This is one of the most important and overlooked abilities, and it’s necessary for coordinated movement skills as well as behavioral issues. I will talk about ways to teach kids to better respond both to cooperative and competitive touch situations.

References

Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus. The Ability to Move to a Beat Is Linked to the Consistency of Neural Responses to Sound. The Journal of Neuroscience, September 18, 2013 33(38)

Bates, M. (2012, September 18). Super powers for the blind and deaf: The brain rewires itself to boost the remaining senses. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/superpowers-for-the-blind-and-deaf/

Montreal Neurological Institute / McGill University. (2004, July 23). The Blind Really Do Hear Better. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 1, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040723093712.htm

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