As the best British Summer for many years draws to a close, I’ve been thinking how good it has been to have so much fun outdoors, albeit with regular top ups of sun screen!
Now that we approach the early stages of Autumn, it’s time to remind ourselves about indoor communication environments and what this looks like in practice. A communication supportive environment is one that promotes and supports children's language and communication skills. I like to see this as an umbrella term for describing the main characteristics of the environment and the way practitioners interact with children. In reality, these look different in early years settings and in school environments. This is because practitioners will be using a range of strategies to support children adapted to their level.
How do we know these help children's language and communication? Well, a communication supportive environment is not a new concept in Early Years, as an Enabling Environment and the role of the practitioners in developing this is well established. We also have evidence about why and how communication supportive approaches support children's communication and learning from The Every Child a Talker (ECAT) programme and research around Effective Preschool Provision in Early Years (EPPE project).
Also, The Better Communication Research Programme (BCRP) has looked into how education environments support children's language and communication. This led to the development of the Communication Supportive classroom tool which concluded that a communication enabling environment covers three aspects:
- The environment
- The role of the adult supporting language interactions
- Opportunities for supporting language interactions
What should the environment look like?
For starters, it should have:
- Cosy quiet spaces so children can think and talk together.
- Minimal background noise – competing with background music makes it harder for young children to listen and concentrate.
- Opportunities to have something to talk about! The activities and opportunities you provide are great conversation starters. Children are more likely to engage when they are interested in something that excites them.
- Open-ended activities are ideal as these are accessible for children, whatever their language levels.
- An asking, friendly environment where children and young people are encouraged to seek clarification when needed: please say that again; what does... mean, etc.
How do I create a communication supportive environment?
Well, one recommended key approach is to follow children's interests – observing what they're saying and playing with makes this easy to do. We can then support their attention and listening skills, enabling children to stay at activities for a longer time. Using this strategy also shows that you are listening to them, valuing what they are saying and what they are doing. By following their interests during open-ended activities, you are giving children time and space to think and communicate.
How can I create opportunities for children to talk and work together?
Get involved! - join in the play. This allows you to engage with their world and show them you value what they do and say. By building a rapport with children, they are more likely to want to talk with you and trust you. This helps develop relationships and support social and emotional development. Joining in with play also gives you a chance to model how we play and talk together, take turns, share and listen.
Also, try adding language as you play alongside them. Children need to hear language in context to learn new words. Hearing the word 'train' over and over again as they play with it allows them opportunities for repetition and multi-sensory learning.
A favourite of mine is to wait for children to respond. Children often need more time than adults to respond. They are trying to take in what you have said, make sense of this and then think of an answer. They then need to think of the words, put these together (if they are speaking at this level) and then co-ordinate the muscles to say the speech sounds. This can all take time - often about ten seconds. Waiting for children also shows that you're listening and that you value what they're interested in.
Last but not least, take a learning walk around your setting and look at the environment from a child's point of view. Does it make sense? Does it have a variety of different spaces for different purposes and different types of conversations? Do you make the most of opportunities for talking and listening? You may already be using many of these strategies intuitively!
However, it's often useful to reflect on which strategies you use consciously as this can help to try different strategies with different children.
Almost all events, encounters or activities within the day can support speech, language and communication, so a communication friendly environment looks to make sure all these opportunities are planned for and used.
For more ideas, look at I CAN’s Early Talker’s boxset and have a look at our FAQs for practitioners: http://www.talkingpoint.org.uk/directory/practitioner-faqs
About the author
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.