Communication & Language

Double the fun – playing with pairs to develop and encourage children’s speaking skills

When was the last time you learned a new word? Maybe you had to look up some newly coined piece of internet slang, or found yourself stumped by an obscure answer to a crossword clue – either way, opportunities for adults to expand their vocabulary are limited unless we seek them out. 

But for a young child, there are still tens of thousands of unfamiliar words to encounter, and they learn them at a rapid rate every day. Research shows that preschool children have a vocabulary of around 1,000 words by the time they are three and they will continue to learn another 500–600 words by the time they are four years old.

Grandparents, parents and carers play an enormous role in this cognitive harvest – it’s really important to your child’s spoken communication and language that you introduce new words to them regularly. 

Learning through play

As with so many things, the best way to do this is in the context of play and activities. By showing an interest in young children’s play, and engaging in conversations around it, you are giving them an opportunity to extend their vocabulary, especially when it comes to grouping and naming.

We often sit with my granddaughter, Daisy, or sit nearby as she plays. I try to avoid asking Daisy too many questions, allowing her to express her ideas and develop her storylines. This proximity allows Daisy to ‘lead’ our talk and conversations. 

I like to look out for those spontaneous moments in play where I can introduce new vocabulary to her so that we have an opportunity to use it in context, to help her understand the meaning of a new word, and its sound. 

Like many children, Daisy loves to play with animal models, and her toy farm is a particular favourite during visits to our house. Recently I was watching as she sorted her farm animals into types and then began grouping them in twos. She had created a little pen area in her farm and I said that I thought the pair of pigs could go in there. 

Daisy instantly adopted ‘pair’ into her play and narrative, naming and positioning the rest of the Duplo animals around the farm – a pair of horses in the stable, a pair of chicken on the roof, and so on.

A set of Duplo animal toys, all in pairs: cows, horses, sheep, chickens and pigs
The animals went in two by two – Daisy discovered ‘pairs’ while playing

Daisy seeing double

Mummy joined us as we were sorting the animals into pairs and Daisy’s storyline continued to develop. As we played with Daisy, Mummy explained to her that we can also have other pairs of things. 

Mummy reminded Daisy that we sometimes say we have ‘a pair of hands’. Daisy soon became engaged in identifying and naming pairs of body parts – eyes, ears, arms, legs and feet!

This led Daisy to realise that she owned a pair of wellington boots, and that she was wearing a pair of trousers; Mummy showed Daisy her pair of spectacles with their two lenses. 

A collage of four 'pairs - a pair of leggings, a pair of trainers, a pair of wellington boots and a pair of spectacles
Daisy realised there are pairs all around her

A couple of days later, Daisy wanted to help Daddy to peg out the laundry on the washing line – a useful skill to add to her fine-motor repertoire, especially when there’s a chance to make more pairs! This time Daisy was able to sort out the socks into matching pairs and then peg them onto the washing line.

The act of pairing can now expand in many directions for Daisy. There are plenty of activities that Daisy is likely to encounter at nursery school that could invite her to match up and make a pair, or several pairs. 

Last week, Daisy came home from her first day at the school nursery. We chatted about her morning and I asked her what she had for snack time. “Milk and half a pear!” she replied.

Ah, the vagaries of the English language – I think I’ll leave homophones for a later blog…

Granny Smith says

  • With confidence, young children will enjoy having conversations with any adult whom they meet regularly. In recent months, Daisy has enjoyed chatting with a neighbour across the garden fence, and it’s a treat to listen to Daisy explaining her ideas and discoveries about the world to another adult.
  • By showing an interest in young children’s play and engaging in conversations around it you are giving them an opportunity to develop their language skills. Listen and give them time to express their thoughts. If you do ask a question, try to use an open-ended question to encourage them to discuss and think through their ideas – you never know when the opportunity to introduce a new word or concept to their vocabulary might arise!
Two toy Dulplo cows are pictured, close-up on a green lawn

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