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A word to the wise on Winter

I have strong memories from childhood of the season changing towards the cold, short days of Winter. Yet as I recall these, it is with warmth that I remember the thrill of leaving the house in the morning to go to school. I’d find the street thick with fallen leaves, the air crisp and my breath showing as I kicked my way through the multi-coloured leafy carpet on the ground. Little did I know then how important it all was. It helped to develop my vocabulary, my language skills and my understanding of the world one child-sized leaf kick at a time. 

The Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn and Winter present us with many challenges but they also provide a rich array of language stimulation opportunities too. Just think of all the familiar and the new words we can explore together with children, all waiting outside the door.

Let me take you on a little journey. It’s a cold sunny morning, children have arrived for the day in their chosen setting, rosy-cheeked and wrapped up warm against the cold. Let’s look at the opportunities we can create to help children explore their day so far and look at what to do next:

  • A child’s arrival prompts us to talk about the temperature outside versus inside
  • Vocabulary support is provided through naming winter accessories like hats, gloves and scarves
  • Moving into the plan for the day, are there leaves outside in the play area that could be used to explore multi-sensory descriptions? The sound, the feel, the colours under foot can all be explored, not to mention the different sizes and shapes.
  • What happens when we inhale deeply and puff out a big breath – what can we see?
  • Are there squirrels foraging for food for winter storage? The ideas are endless!

Direct experiences contribute greatly to children’s ability to store and recall new words. Associating vocabulary with fun events and new adventures make it so much more fun to recall later. This will help feed children’s narrative skills. These are essential as they allow all of us to better understand the experiences we have.

Giving children the opportunity to practice this core area for language and communication is vital for the subsequent development of reading and writing skills. These go hand-in-hand with success at school when the time comes.

Bring it in and bring it back

Let’s go back to our journey and see what we might be doing now:

  • It’s time to come indoors and once more unwrap our winter layers.
  • Once that’s done, we can explore everything that we’ve foraged; what did we find? What did it look and feel like and what we are going to do with it in winter! Display it on the wall? Do we make a poster to take home later in the day or write a log book to look back through at the end of term?

Here, we have lovely and easy to achieve opportunities to review what we discovered outdoors and to rehearse and practice new as well as familiar names and descriptions.

The more practice children have at learning new words, the better this skill becomes. Research published in the early 90’s by Earnest Boyer looked at children’s readiness to learn and identified that children with less practice in learning new words find it more challenging than children who have had more opportunity to practice. We can address this easily and consistently – a small amount of effort can make a huge amount of difference to the children in our care.

Make it all fit together

Using the senses to help children learn new words is just one of many approaches we can use to support children’s vocabulary development. Include the following techniques in your ‘toolkit’ of good practice:

  • Make sure you have the child’s attention first before speaking
  • Use simple language with lots of repetitions
  • Always give the child time to respond to what you say
  • Try not to ask too many questions
  • Build on what the child has said by adding a word or two.

Not only can we create warm, fond memories that will stay with us into adulthood but we can make it possible to talk about them in detail many years later, all from having some fun outdoors in the cold.

For further tips please see I CAN’s FAQ on Teaching Children New Words.

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to 


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