Taking Learning Outside with Language Games

I am of the belief that the work of parenting is never easier than in the springtime. It’s pleasant enough to spend long, happy periods of time outdoors, which makes for children who are more likely to rest and eat well, and as a bonus it often means less housework, too! Learning, too, seems to come easier to my children when the weather is mild. They have energy, the new life in our environment: blossoms, leaves, and nesting birds sparks their curiosity and observation skills, and the time in nature leaves them feeling more peaceful than usual. It can feel like a magical time.

Putting all of the wonders of springtime together, one has an ideal recipe for second language learning, which is wonderful news for those of us who aim to nurture our children’s skill in a minority language. In our household, we’re all learning Spanish, and the children are still at the stage of language learning where they’re building basic vocabulary and beginning to understand the grammatical structure of the language. To help them at this stage, I have two favorite tools that are perfect for use in the great outdoors, and I would love to share them with you.

Total Physical Response

Making a game of learning action words (and indirectly getting tons of exposure to the sentence structure and grammatical rules of the minority language) using the technique of Total Physical Response was a favorite of the preschoolers I taught Spanish to many years ago at a Montessori school, but it works just as well with my own two preschoolers here at home. I won’t go into exhaustive detail, because there’s a pdf put together by proliteracy.org that serves as a great guide, but here’s how we play:

First, I invite the children to join me to practice our Spanish “Activity Words.” I have played with just one child, and as many as ten, but a larger group than that would be fine, too. I have the children stand in a line, with everyone facing me rather than the person in front of them, and I stand a few yards away.

Taking Learning Outside with Language Games | Multicultural Kid Blogs
My children, jumping (saltando).

I choose two or three action words I would like the children to learn. Although we play in Spanish, I’ll use English words here for the sake of example. You, of course, can play along in your children’s minority language. In a classroom setting, I always started this game off with “sit” and “stand up” (siéntense and and levantense), as these are important commands for a class.

Next, I demonstrate the words I’ve chosen, one at a time. I like to use complete sentences, just to get the children used to the sentence structure of our target language. So, to demonstrate, I stand in front of them and say what I’m about to do: “I am going to sit.” I then ask the children to do the same: “You sit,” and use gestures to make it even easier for them to understand what I’m requesting. After introducing my two or three words, I play around with the children, calling out alternating commands for them. This could be really boring, but when you put a bit of theatrics into it, the children love it.

It usually only takes a couple of minutes for the children to learn two or three new commands. I write down the commands we learn and review them the next time we play, adding one to two more so that the length of the game increases as the children increase their repertoire of actions – and the language to go with them. Others I like to do very early on are: walk, run, jump, clap, dance, sing, and kick – all such fun to do in a relaxed outdoor setting, and so easy to remember after involving the whole body on a beautiful, sunshiny day. You can also mime actions like painting, drawing, playing (air guitar!), kissing, hugging, and so much more!

To add to the challenge and introduce different types of words, you can add adverbs: instead of just asking the children to walk or run, ask them to do it slowly or quickly. You can also add nouns: ask the children to run to the tree, the house, the flowers, the gate, etc. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Of course, as they gain confidence, the children can take turns calling out commands and you get the joy of simply observing.

Learning the Names of Things in Three Periods

The Montessori Three Period Lesson is a great tool we Montessori guides use to introduce all manner of vocabulary and concepts, and it’s a great tool for parents, too. It lends itself not only to vocabulary enrichment in a child’s native language, but also to the acquisition of new vocabulary in their second language. It’s absolutely wonderful for learning outdoors, as it requires nothing more than a bit of time and some things to name. I see it as very similar to Total Physical Response in practice, but it lends itself more to individual or small groups, whereas Total Physical Response games are ideal for a larger group. Here’s an example of a three period lesson I may give outdoors to a child who is learning the words “daffodil” and “tulip.”

Period One: Introduce the Vocabulary

It is ideal to teach no more than two or three words at a time, and to introduce them in isolation at first, so that the child sees only the object you’re naming. This makes the lesson as clear as possible. In the flower example, one might:

Pick and place in front of the child a daffodil. Say, “This is a daffodil. Can you say daffodil?”

Move the daffodil out of the child’s sight and replace it with a tulip, saying, “This is a tulip. Can you say tulip?”

Period Two: Practice the Vocabulary

Taking Learning Outside with Language Games | Multicultural Kid BlogsYou can take this in so many different directions, appealing to the child’s silly side, by having them put things on their head, or their love of dancing by inviting them to dance around with an object. The idea is simply to work with the vocabulary in a way that is relaxed, fun, and engaging. If the child makes a mistake, there’s no need to correct them, simply go back to the first period and nonchalantly reintroduce the vocabulary. To continue with my example, one might do the following:

Put the daffodil beside the tulip. Ask the child, “Can you smell the tulip?” “Put the tulip in your lap.” “Feel the tulip’s petals.” “Smell the daffodil.” “Put the daffodil on your shoulder.” “Touch the daffodil’s petals.” “Put the daffodil on top of the tulip.” “Touch the tulip” “Touch the daffodil.”

Period Three: Recall

When you see that the child doesn’t pause or hesitate before acting on your words, and you’re fairly confident they’ll remember the new vocabulary, you can give them an opportunity to produce it themselves by pointing at each item in turn and asking, “What is this?” As before, if the child makes a mistake, there’s no need to correct them. The child need not feel pressured and should finish their practice with a sense of accomplishment. If they do not answer you with the correct word, simply go back to the second period and play some more, and plan to work on these same words again in the near future, adding new ones as the child is ready.

There’s no wrong way to expose children to useful vocabulary, whether in their native, or their second or third language. What are your favorite language games? What does outdoor learning look like for your children?

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Melissa is a Montessori guide and mother of three children six and under living just outside Washington, DC. She is passionate about nurturing children in an environment that gives them the time and space to be themselves, while learning to love, appreciate and care for the world around them.

2 thoughts on “Taking Learning Outside with Language Games”

  1. The kiddos and I played this a few times already. Big Kiddo likes to play when I ask him to bring things with specifics like…”bring me something with two colors that opens and closes”. He then asks me for hours afterwards “Dime cosas en Ingles Mamá”.
    Thanks for the tips Melissa!

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