Language Games

Within the home one would hope that adults encourage conversation and provide children with information and vocabulary as part of the daily round. This should also be the situation in the nursery. Unfortunately where there is a low ratio of adults to children, or it can even happen where there is a generous number of adults, it is possible for the quietest, shyest child to be forgotten. The confident articulate one gets his share of attention because, quite rightly, he will keep on asking or talking until he gets an answer. The child with a speech handicap will be deliberately given special attention. The ones in between fare badly unless some care is taken. It is true, of course, that children learn from each other but there is no doubt that the contribution made to language, vocabulary in particular, by adults is more important. Well-planned story sessions which allow for conversation afterwards are still likely to be in large groups and it is impossible to have a conversation with twenty children.

There are some specific games, activities and materials which give rise to a good deal of opportunity to introduce new words. The interest tables mentioned above, the farmyard layout, the set of small houses, matching sets of pictures which show people working rather than static objects, the dolls’ house and furniture are all useful. The toddler-sized doll suggested for play-house use could be a focal point for discussing weather and clothes – ‘ It’s very cold today so what clothes do you think we ought to put on her?’; ‘Which of these clothes would we put on her if it was warm?’; ‘This sou’wester would keep her head dry but what could we put on her feet to stop her getting them wet?’. The ‘secrets bag’ game never fails to appeal to ever shy children: the adult has a small bag in which she has placed two or three small articles; she puts her hand in saying ‘I have in my hand something which feels hard/soft/cold/prickly’ so that the children can guess what it is before she brings it out. Another game for a small group is to tell a simple story and record it by threading beads: ‘Johnny got up one morning and put on a white vest (white bead), purple pants (purple bead), red trousers (red bead), blue socks (two blue beads), etc’ At the end of the story Johnny goes to bed and has to take off… and the children check the beads so that they can tell the storyteller which garments. This can also be used with older children by giving each of the small group sufficient beads to thread for themselves. Another game involves a set of pictures with different simple subjects and colours (the basic Shirley Decorative shapes are ideal) mounted on cards backed with plastic foam sheet and placed on a picture board also covered with the same plastic foam sheet. They stick on rather like a flannel graph (a picture made up of a felt or flannel background with felt shapes to stick on to it). This game consists of asking children to fetch the picture which shows some particular feature. The youngest three-year-old can probably fetch a primary-coloured one. An older child could fetch a picture of something that has wheels/flies in the air/swims in the water/lives in a burrow. Relationships and attribute-matching can also be introduced for the more advanced children. ‘Find something that would be very big if it wasn’t just a picture.’ Many adults are dismayed to find just how difficult and tiring this work can be. Certainly it would be no use one adult setting aside a whole session for these language activities. She could not keep up her efforts for that length of time, especially as the group of children is continually changing and they will remain fresh when she is exhausted. Another point which is obvious but which ought to be made is that a flexible approach is necessary. If the children or an individual child drifts off into his own conversation then this should be followed. The child’s output is far more important than the input the adult is trying to achieve.

There is of course a special problem with non-English-speaking children. Fortunately in the free atmosphere of the nursery group there is plenty of opportunity to learn from other children and since few rules and set procedures are necessary they are more favourably placed than they would be at a later stage in a more formal atmosphere. In particular, they benefit enormously from simple games which use lots of very clear pictures and familiar objects. If one can persuade an English-speaking child to play too then he can do the interpreting by following the game. If the material is duplicated the foreign child can be asked to do the same: ‘Can you find the blue picture John?’, ‘Yes, that’s the blue picture – can find a blue picture Jeanne?’ Unfortunately the main problem with young foreign children ‘ is that we do not speak their language. Trying to understand them when they want to tell us something or are distressed is much more difficult than trying to build up their vocabulary.