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THE CASE FOR GOOD ACOUSTICS AT DAYCARE CENTERS

By Mike Nixon

Article reprinted with permission from the Summer 2003 issue of Hearing Health, a publication of Deafness Research Foundation. To visit the online version and/or subscribe, go to www.hearinghealthmag.com.


An ever-rising number of households with two working parents or a single custodial parent who is employed has created an increasing need for preschool childcare outside the home. While extended family members care for the majority of preschoolers of working parents, about five million of our smallest children attend commercial or institutional daycare centers.


The types of programs that are available for them and the facilities where they are provided vary widely. There are many factors to consider when choosing among daycares in your area. Certainly, appropriate certification and education for the program workers and a safe and secure environment top the list. An often overlooked variable ranks nearly as high: the noise levels that exist within the setting.


As is well established, exposure to excessive noise over prolonged periods is potentially harmful to hearing. That of course is one concern as our preschool children are frequently in loud daycare settings for as long as eight to 10 hours of the day. Another is the detrimental effect on learning, language and socialization caused by the inability of young children to listen successfully in noisy environments. Effective acoustical environments can improve speech intelligibility which is critical for speech development.


Very young children need low background noise and very low reverberation time (RT) levels to perceive speech at optimum levels. This is particularly critical where there are many young children in the room. High background noise levels and sound reflective hard surfaces can cause a noise buildup as the children talk more loudly and compete with one another in order to be heard. At times the resulting noise levels can best be characterized as a clamorous din.


The additional agitation and stress of the elevated noise levels can heighten the effects of the child's inability to perceive speech, further compromising attention, concentration and increasing negative behavior.


Caregivers too can be at risk by having to raise their voices to a point where they experience vocal fatigue. Furthermore, daycare providers and teachers exposed to a constant barrage of loud sound can become tired and irritable and experience heightened stress.


Daycare centers and preschool facilities range from converted commercial establishments to church facilities and community centers. Some school districts incorporate preschools in newer school buildings. Regardless of the facility, it is likely that the vast majority of these settings has not been designed or modified to effectively reflect the critical needs of very young preschool children and even more especially children with auditory related deficits.


While acoustical standards for school facilities have been developed and adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), they address the acoustical and noise issues for elementary schools and above. Criteria for daycare centers or preschool facilities are not yet included. Nevertheless, we can draw on the ANSI standards for some measure of guidance on improving the listening environment for our children in daycare and preschool.


The design and layout of the daycare or preschool facility is especially important if it is to be user-friendly. If it has an open plan arrangement, there is an expectation that the noise levels will be much higher due to the increased occupancy. Totally contained smaller spaces on the other hand are much more likely to be quieter.


The ANSI standards for classroom acoustics recommend that the reverberation time in a typical classroom of 10,000 cubic feet or less should not exceed 0.6 seconds. Excessive reverberation can lead to a smearing of the speech signal due to late arriving reflected sound as heard by the listener. For preschoolers as well as young children with hearing deficits, there has been some suggestion that the reverberation time should be lower, perhaps in the range of 0.4-0.5 seconds. The recommended background noise levels of 35 decibels in unoccupied classrooms would be equally applicable for preschool facilities.


When selecting a daycare center or preschool facility, armed with the knowledge that the acoustical environment will have an impact on both children and their caregivers, parents can evaluate the facilities by observing the following:


  • Is the daycare facility an open concept with no subdivision into small self-contained rooms? This space could be very noisy.
  • If the space is an open plan, is it one large area or is it divided into smaller spaces set off by high partitions or screens? Noise may still be a problem.
  • How many children are in attendance? The more children, the noisier the space, in most cases.
  • What are the architectural conditions of the space(s)? Is the ceiling a high ceiling or is it an acoustical ceiling? Are the wall and floor surfaces hard and acoustically reflective? The higher the ceiling, the higher the RT. If there is no acoustical ceiling, the noise could be intolerable. Sometimes with a very high acoustical ceiling, the RT can still be unacceptable as it can if the walls and floors are hard surfaced.
  • A hand clap in the facility can often determine how reverberate the space is. If the hand clap sounds hollow, the RT in the space might be higher than it should be. The sound of a hand clap at the acceptable 0.4-0.5 second RT level is about the same as in an average living room with carpet and upholstered furniture.
  • Can you hear background noises from the heating/ventilation system or from exterior sources when the space is empty? If you can hear these noises easily, the space may not comply with ANSI acoustical standards. The recommended 35-decibel background noise level is once again about the same level as an unoccupied living room.
  • If the facility has a kitchen area, is it self-contained or is it part of the larger open space? Kitchen areas that have dishwashers can contribute noise that is unacceptable as can dishes and cutlery while being stored after meals or snacks.

Attending daycare or preschool can be an important opportunity for a child to gain social skills and interact with adults and other children. The architecture of the facility must be friendly, comfortable and support good speech intelligibility, learning and discipline. These characteristics can help insure that the daycare or preschool setting will have a positive impact on the child during a critically important formative time of life.