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Ideas for talking with children during child-initiated activities

Follow the children's lead

When deeply engaged in activities, children usually have a clear sense of purpose and a well-defined pattern of thinking. The most productive talk takes place when adults tap into this. Any attempt to introduce another agenda can only result in frustration and lost opportunities.

Be conversational

Use their comments as conversational openers. Listen carefully to children and repeat back what they say. This gives value to their ideas and encourages them to keep talking. For example: Child: This car go fast I fast I very fast.

Adult: This car goes very, very fast.

Child:That 'cause it racing car.

Adult: That's because it's a racing car. Would you like to drive a racing car?

Avoid inquisition

Ask questions sparingly. Questions can put children on the spot. If they don't know the answer - or if they don't have the vocabulary or facility with language to answer - they may freeze up. Tentative language is often more effective, for example "I wonder why the sand did that ..."

Seek enlightenment

One type of questioning that is often successful is a display of "genuine" curiosity - for instance, asking children how they did something or asking for their help. This less direct, social questioning shows you are interested in and respect their ideas, and can also help move their ideas on.

Expand and extend

As in natural conversation, extend and expand on what children say in order to develop new ideas and vocabulary. For example: Child: When I went to the fair I went on the waltzers and it was great.

Adult: I went on the waltzers once, but I didn't like it.

Child: Why not? Why didn't you like it?

Adult: It made me dizzy.

Child: Why did it do that?

You now have an opening to introduce new ideas and vocabulary.

Model pole-bridging talk

It is natural for young children to talk to themselves as they do or make something, giving a sort of running commentary on their activity. This "pole-bridging talk" is an important element in cognitive and linguistic development. In children with poor language development, however, pole-bridging talk may involve vague and impoverished language. It helps to model pole-bridging talk, thus providing them with the vocabulary when the context is most meaningful. During any play (indoor and out) and role-play, and while engaged in any creative activity, you can pole-bridge on behalf of the child or children you are with, describing their actions. For example: "You are putting all of the dinosaurs in the bucket."

Or you can pole-bridge about what you yourself are doing as you sit alongside a child. For example: "I think I'll make a necklace. I'm going to thread this piece of macaroni on to the string. I'll have to push it through the hole there. Now I'm pulling it along."

Remember to leave plenty of long gaps between sections of your commentary, so the child can join in or take over. And if the child is clearly irritated by your presence, stop.

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