Communication, language and literacy in outdoor play: Speak out

Anne O'Connor
Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Words speak loud as actions when practitioners encourage children to find their voices outdoors, says Anne O'Connor

Words speak loud as actions when practitioners encourage children to find their voices outdoors, says Anne O'Connor

The current emphasis on provision of good quality outdoor play for children in the Foundation Stage, including children in reception classes, has increased awareness of the learning that takes place when children are physically active. Some of children's most developed language emerges naturally when they are playing outdoors, and for many children the opportunity to run around being noisy is denied them in all other contexts. Don't ignore the enhanced opportunities for developing oracy and communication skills when children are playing outdoors. Encourage children to find their voice in a big way!

Learning opportunities

A properly resourced outdoor area can deliver the same rich learning experiences as the indoors:

  • Developing imaginative role play and acting out stories in large open spaces (and the natural environment).

  • Linking language with physical movement in action games and songs and exploring forces and movement.

  • Exploring print in the environment, such as notices, signs and warnings.

  • Using voice in a variety of ways, from quiet conversation to loud shouting, and all variations in between.

  • Negotiating plans, activities and use of equipment and space.

  • Developing social and communication skills when playing with others.

  • Using language to recreate roles and experiences, such as driving a car or climbing a mountain.

  • Mark-making on a small and large scale on paper, floors and walls.

  • Learning scientific and descriptive vocabulary relating to outdoors, such as weather, plants, minibeasts, traffic.

  • Acting as spectators, narrators or commentators on each other's play and actions.

Resources and activities

When resourcing the outdoors, practitioners should seek to capitalise on the fact that movement and sound can be on a much larger scale and so bring fresh opportunities to develop communication, language and literacy skills:

  • Act out stories and games that encourage a range of imaginative movement, such as slithering, galloping, pouncing and wriggling, and introduce the words alongside the actions.

  • Play 'lead and follow' games such as 'Simon Says' using oral as well as visual signals.

  • Provide as many telephones as you can so children can have conversations by themselves or with others. Position some phones together and spread others around the outdoor area.

  • Experiment with microphones, megaphones and loudspeakers. Provide materials such as cones and cylinders of card and large plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off.

  • Play games such as 'What's the time Mr Wolf?' or 'May I?'. Encourage practitioners and parents to share memories of similar games and explain the rules. Display a list of the games outside as a reminder to practitioners.

  • Encourage children to experiment with voice pitch and volume, for example, going from high to low as they come down the slide or shouting from the top of the climbing frame.

  • Provide 'playground' chalk for mark-making on the ground and on walls and let children write and make marks on a large scale. Talk to them about when it is appropriate to write on walls, and remind worried adults that it will all be washed away in the rain!

  • A cheaper (and even more temporary) alternative is to provide brushes and pots of water, which can be used on almost any surface with no worries about damage.

  • Paint a section of wall (or fence) and write welcoming and farewell messages on it in chalk at the start and end of every session, such as 'Hello everybody', 'Happy Tuesday', 'See you tomorrow'. Have another noticeboard for events and announcements.

  • Write notices and signs, aimed at adults, in a variety of fonts and languages and display where children can read them too. Encourage children to suggest and create their own notices and warnings, such as 'Mind the step'.

  • Put up small bird boxes at child height and leave messages in them for the children. Children will soon begin leaving messages for each other.

  • Devise 'print searches'. For example, ask the children to find words or letters contained in notices; hide words and letters from well-known packaging around the garden; laminate letters of the alphabet and hang them from the branches of a tree.

  • Devise a treasure hunt with easy clues and then encourage children to create their own.

  • Create an outdoor book area or reading corner, with cushions and blankets. Place it in a sheltered area in winter and a shady spot in summer.

  • Provide baskets, suitcases, holdalls or wheeled shoppers for carrying role-play or small-world toys outdoors.

  • When arguments or disputes take place, give children the opportunities to talk and listen to each other, rather than just uttering 'sorry'. Model appropriate language for them - for example, 'Please don't crash into me again, because it hurts.' As there are usually two sides to each story, allow the aggressor to voice the reasoning behind their actions, and to express remorse in a meaningful way - for example, 'If you don't like it, I won't do it again.'


Set up a trolley with writing materials and stationery that can be wheeled in and out easily, so that children can initiate outdoor writing and drawing activities. Clipboards are particularly useful for writing on, especially when it is windy. Make available battery-powered CD and cassette players so children can listen to stories and rhymes and record their own voices.

Adult role

The practitioner's role in supporting children's communication, language and literacy development is crucial and demands sensitive intervention and observation of their outdoor play. To be effective, practitioners should:

  • play with enthusiasm, engaging alongside children, being guided by them and not dominating.

  • enable quiet or reticent children to find their voice in an outdoor setting, and let all children experiment with their range, pitch and volume.

  • introduce the language of movement alongside actions, giving children the opportunity to practise and experiment with the new vocabulary.

  • offer an environment that encourages children to talk about what they are doing and think about how they can improve actions or movements.

  • model appropriate vocabulary and language use, by sensitively responding to children, demonstrating strategies such as listening, initiating and sustaining conversation and negotiating gently and respectfully.

  • involve children in agreeing codes of behaviour and how to implement them.

  • give information that helps children to understand why people do things differently and encourage children to talk about these differences.

  • provide an outdoor environment rich in meaningful literacy experiences, where notices are affirmative rather than negative and written in a variety of scripts.

  • record and observe a child's developing oracy, their speech and language needs and their use of non-verbal gesture and communication.

  • respect children's desire to sometimes be silent.

  • inform parents about the value of outdoor play and its role in learning and language development.

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