Imagine a sapling in a tiny greenhouse. The greenhouse is a small, protective place for new plants. The elements are controlled, the four walls all around block out the noise, and little plants are perfectly positioned to soak up all the benefits of this enriched environment.
But now that sapling has grown and is ready to be planted outside in the garden. The garden is much bigger than the greenhouse. It’s full of noises. You can hear the birds chirping, squirrels chattering away, maybe even the distant growl of an animal looking for a snack. The wind whistles through the trees, and there’s nothing out there to protect plants from the elements.
Though our ultimate goal is for children to become skilled listeners in a variety of environments, with and without background noise, we have to nurture these little saplings in the greenhouse before we expose them to the elements of the garden. In the beginning, it is best to minimize sources of background noise. To a new listener, a hostile listening environment (for example: the dishwasher running, television on, and mom talking) is like sound soup. They cannot yet pick out the signal (mom’s voice) from the noise (dishwasher, TV, etc.). Without time to practice listening in quiet environments, they will not learn how to make that distinction. But what about when children get older? How do we make the difficult call between ideal listening situations and everyday reality? My general thought is this: we need to make the distinction between content and context to ensure competence.
If it’s an issue of content (new language structures, academic material, test situations, etc.), then we pull out all the stops to make the listening environment as favorable as possible. This is the time to stay in the greenhouse. I want the child to be able to learn this new information under the best conditions possible. This is going to lead to greater retention, mastery, and ability to have this knowledge solidly established when it’s put to the test in more “real world” listening situations where the child has less support. To create a greenhouse, we minimize the two enemies of listening: distance and noise. This can be done by manipulating the environment (carpeted floors, closed windows, turning off the television, etc.) and/or adding accommodations (soundfield or FM systems).
But life is not a greenhouse. Deciding when to move out to the garden is a matter of context. Once the child has established listening, speech, and language skills, it’s time to change the context and help move them to the next level. Little by little, we can add background noise, take skills out of the safety of the therapy room, and have children practice with unfamiliar conversation partners. The context helps us determine which accommodations are necessary. The context of an important college lecture might mean use of an FM, while the context of the college party later that night might mean an opportunity to put listening in noise skills to the test.
Making the distinction between “greenhouse moments” and “garden moments” can be tricky. There is no percentage, threshold, or skill that can serve as a guarantee of success for all listeners. And just as too much time in a greenhouse can wilt a plant and too early a move to the garden can destroy it, we must strive to maintain a careful balance. Ultimately, the greenhouse vs. garden analogy can apply to tricky questions about all aspects of child development. When do we nurture in the greenhouse and when do we test in the garden? When do we push out and challenge and when do we draw back and protect? Above all, focus on competence: what is the greatest level of independence the child can have to be successful, comfortable, and confident in this situation?