Writing this on what feels like the rainiest day of summer I have been thinking about how many words I have used to describe different types of rain and how wet I've got! I have only been able to use these because I've actually felt them, and it reminded me how experiencing things gives us a chance to give voice to them and name them. For children we should make the most of opportunities to explore and develop their understanding of the world - which all involve expanding their language and communication horizons.
Feeling it brings it to life
No matter what your outside environment is like - whether large or small - there are still lots of opportunities for fun and engaging play. Even experiencing the weather gives children a chance to expand their vocabulary. Younger children may developing their knowledge of adjectives by describing being 'wet', 'dry', older children may talk about being 'soaked' (in fact, how many words for wet can you think of?)'. Children can also talk about what the weathers like - sunny, cloudy, hot, rainy...remember you can use pictures to help children who may not know the words straight away. Making it concrete and real brings it to life and helps strengthen the associations between words and their meaning. When children hear the word 'sunny' they draw on their memories of sunny days (or different weathers!).
Learning to listen
Sounds are different outside and going on a listening walk can help children to tune in to these. For example, if you have a garden you can listen to the wind hushing through the trees, or hear planes overhead.
There may also be chances to make more noise outside with some home made garden instruments - making home made drums out of plant pots can introduce children to different sounds and rhythms.
Learning about actions and places
Being outside often gives children an opportunity to be more active and we can support them to learn about action words. For example: running, jumping, throwing, rolling, pushing, pulling. By modelling these for children as they are doing them we are helping them to learn the link between words and actions. Repeating these again and again will reinforce these links and help them to learn new words. The mental links between word and action will be stronger when they've experienced them together.
There may be lots of chances to learn about positional language - for example, going under, over, behind or through things. Hide and seek is a great game for outside to help children learn about positional language during play. Actually being under or behind a tree adds to children's mental dictionary.
It's what you do and the way that you do it....
As with play inside the activities and opportunities we offer children are supported by the way that we interact and model language. When you're planning do you:
- Include vocabulary you may target? For example, you may focus on action words or learning and practising the names of new words.
- Differentiate this for children at different stages? For example, you might make a bird noise and use the word 'bird' when a younger child points at a bird but say 'that's a pigeon' to an older child to help them expand and develop their vocabulary.
- Create opportunities for children to play together? For example, all having a job in the mud kitchen or in the garage gives children an opportunity to develop their imaginative role play and also gives them a focus and a structure for their play.
- Give children ways of joining in using the skills they have e.g. by using gestures or using verbal language?
- Bring books alive? Using your outside area can make a Bear Hunt more exciting and you can make any book with a journey feel very real for children, which can engage them.
For more ideas look at I CAN's Early Talkers boxset and look at I CAN Help's factsheets.
Outside environments are vital for supporting children's development and learning. They offer huge potential for children to learn about the world and expand their horizons and vocabulary. As always, our role as practitioners is to create these opportunities as invitations to explore and experience, and to support children to enhance their language and communication skills.
About Amanda Baxter
Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.