Language Activity Ideas for Young Children
About the author: Fluent in French and English, Ali Neill has a long history in teaching languages to children as well as adults, through workshops, babysitting, tutoring and classes. She is also the job board tester and editor for the Jobboard Finder, the largest job board search engine in the world.
At a young age, children are capable of learning new languages almost effortlessly. Past puberty, learning a language becomes far more difficult for most of us, partially because the grammar can no longer be assimilated without being learnt. The Instinct of Language by Steven Pinker explains some of the complexities concerning language learning for adults, which children don’t have.
However, even if children can learn languages, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to. For learning to become a fun experience, parents and teachers need to be creative with their activities. Here are some of my favourite games for children:
Toddlers (1 - 3 years old)
Toddlers love to play but concentration can be an issue. In addition to a short attention span, toddlers have slightly underdeveloped eyesight and awkward movements. However, their hearing is actually better than that of older children, meaning they can distinguish between more sounds. With these different strengths and weaknesses in mind, the activities should focus on listening, showing and dancing.
- Nursery Rhymes. Every language has its own songs and nursery rhymes, which are a huge part of a child’s culture. The tunes are catchy, making it easy to remember simple words later on. Even if children don’t know what they’re hearing yet, the songs will become familiar to them.
- The Alphabet. In any language, the alphabet enables children to discover sounds. You can make the experience more interactive by imitating objects and animals, which start with the letter you are up to in the alphabet.
- Counting. The great thing about counting is you can use your body, and more specifically, your hands or feet. By showing children numbers as well as saying them, they will get used to associating the name, the physical number and the cardinal number.
- Animal Sounds. Did you know that cows don’t go moo in French and dogs don’t go woof? That’s right: animals have different names and different sounds in foreign languages. Children love animals, so imitating them and using the foreign onomatopoeias as well as the foreign names for animals is a great way to capture the attention of toddlers.
Small children (3 - 7 years old)
Past the age of three, children start interacting more verbally and socially. Activities, which encourage children to work together and notice each other, become pivotal for their emotional and social development. Imitating each other as well as adults becomes progressively easier as they learn to control their own movements. Children are also very curious and most of them like listening to stories, especially if the narration is accompanied by images and/or acting.
Puzzles. It’s so easy to make your own puzzle and to cut out the different objects or creatures in the puzzle to create the pieces. That way, you can emphasise the names of each specific thing in the picture. Children can do puzzles alone or in small groups, which also creates social interaction.
- Storytelling. At any age, human beings love stories. We tell stories all the time! Everything is new and marvellous to children, who have heard very few stories in their lifetime compared to adults. If you have books in foreign languages with illustrations or if you can create your own puppets or material to re-enact some of the scenes, then you will have small children gazing at you in amazement as they listen intently to your story.
- Games with instructions. A vast number of activities fall into this category. You can create flashcards for emotions, colours, animals, the weather, sports, etc. and teach children to call out the right word when they see the corresponding image. If you don’t have time to create flashcards, you can use music or oral words, which children then have to repeat or imitate.
- I Spy. One of my personal favourites is “I Spy”. Whether the game officially exists in the foreign language or not, you can adapt the rules. The children must name something blue in the room for example, or something starting with the letter R if you have advanced groups.
Older children (8 and up)
The great thing about children over the age of eight is that most of them know how to read. When a child starts reading, the possibilities are endless for language games and language learning.
- Treasure hunts. Treasure hunts take a bit of time to prepare but they are so much fun. To encourage children to practise reading and to help them remember words for familiar objects, like table, bedroom and book, use them in your instructions. Each set of instructions should lead to another clue until they finally find the treasure.
- Fill-in-the gaps exercises. You might be surprised to find children can quickly become pro translators, without even realising it. If you have a children’s book, which you can translate, leave out easy words like “and” or “he”, so that the child can fill them in as they read the story. As their English skills advance, remove more complicated words. They will be so proud of themselves for filling in the gaps.
- Sentence reconstruction. For small children, you need to start with easy simple sentences and it might be best to start by telling them the meaning in their mother tongue. Reconstructing sentences can be very difficult at first, but it’s a great way to learn about grammatical structures, verbs, nouns, adjectives and so on.
- Guessing games. Much like “I spy”, guessing games can be adapted to a specific topic. One example of a guessing game would be to put the name of an object, animal or person on each child’s forehead, and to guess what the word is. This helps children learn how to ask questions and to use describing words.
A bright future for bilinguals
Being bilingual opens many doors. A second language could mean a better position in a company or being hired over another candidate in an international business. Teaching a child a second language is hard work but it doesn’t have to be boring. By making language learning a fun experience, children won’t even notice that they are developing a skill, which will stand them in good stead for their future careers.
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