Toddler Language Development Activities

This article outlines some techniques and materials, including a storybook, which can be used by parents, grandparents, and teachers to improve a child’s cognitive development and academic success.  The activities incorporate learning strategies that have a basis in educational research in order to engage young children and strengthen their vocabulary, creativity, and reading skills. In addition, ideas within this article can be used by parents, grandparents, or teachers as a template to develop future teachable moments. [Note: Some applicable national education standards for kindergarteners are listed within this article that relate to the incorporated techniques and/or subject matter.]

Storybook: Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson

The above storybook can be accessed online, at a library, or at a bookstore and can be read over-and-over again to young children in order to build their thinking and communication skills. In addition, this storybook and others, can focus young children on some of the themed activities detailed below.

Importance of Complex Language Acquisition:  Researchers agree that vocabulary size and understanding of complex words before or by the age of kindergarten are early predictors of academic achievement.  The importance of complex language acquisition is particularly seen as the children progress to the 3rd grade where they move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” and in middle school grade levels.  In fact, it is not a child’s ability to read words, but for them to comprehend what they are reading that is a proven early predictor of academic success and graduation from high school and a university.  

A young child whose parent and other family members speak not only more complex words directed at the child, but a greater variety of words, will have increased language abilities, including quick word recognition and the ability to apply words by putting them in context.  In association with using complex words (some examples of complex words include: imagine, reflect, reflection, realize, determined), the adult (parent, grandparent, and teacher) has the opportunity to provide definitions of those words in order to increase a child’s understanding of the word.  Defining words or explaining what a specific word implies, can be a component of reading a storybook.

[Some people say, “Why use a ‘50 cent’ word when you can use a ‘5 cent’ word?” when in fact, for the success of a child’s grasp of language, their understanding of content/concepts, and ensuring their pathway to a successful academic career, it is more important to use those ‘50 cent’ words from birth onward.”]

Bear Says Thanks storybook:  Below are some (1) key themes, (2) reasons why this storybook was selected for this article, and (3) reading strategies for adults. This story:

  • Can be tied to a holiday/seasonal theme: for example, this story is great to read during the Thanksgiving season.
  • Contains complex words that are used frequently in this story (words, such as bored, feast, delectable, tromps, stroll, etc.).  With frequent reading of this storybook, the reader can stop and describe/define what one or two words mean so that over time, the listener understands all of the words.  The reader can also incorporate these complex words into their own vocabulary, such as “Do you want to take a stroll around the neighborhood?” or “Let’s tromp on some bubble wrap to see if we can make it pop! Tromp! Tromp!
  • Contains rhyming words; a skill that children are encouraged to learn at school.  Also “rhyming” adds musicality to storytelling.
  • Encourages using the voice to elaborate on the emotions of the character. Readers have the opportunity to enhance their own storytelling skills.
  • Expresses that “storytelling” is a gift.  Children can be encouraged to tell their own story or one in association with the storybook.  

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (for Kindergarten): These are national education standards which many states recognize and utilize in the classroom. Notice how the standards below align with the suggested material to be taught.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RF.K.2a Recognize and produce rhyming words.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.K.2 Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.

Vocabulary acquisition: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.K.6 Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts.

Themed Activities at Home to Strengthen STEM Education and School-readiness Skills: Practice the following activities at home with your children/grandchildren.

Storytelling:  In the storybook, Bear gets ready to tell a story; prompt your child with the question: if you were a bear, what story would you tell?  You can provide a story starter, such as: “Once upon a time, there was a small brown bear who lived not too far from a cold, clear lake at the top of a forested mountain in Alaska.  One frosty, early morning, as the bear was walking along past berries, bushes, and tall trees, she ……” Ask your child what happens next (i.e, felt…, saw…, heard…, smelled…, decided to…) to continue the story.  This storytelling activity can alternate between the adult and child taking the lead as the storyteller.

Rhyming: For older toddlers, encourage rhyming words; see how many words they can think of that rhyme with “Bear,” such as air, care, aware, snare, dare, fair, share, hair, lair, pear, rare … etc. (Don’t discourage them if they come up with “words” that rhyme that are not actual words, such as “gare,” in this case, …as they are practicing the sound of the word which will be applied toward building a foundation for sounding out words and eventually for reading similarly spelled words, such as at, bat, cat, etc.).  This activity also provides an opportunity to define words with which they are not familiar.

Noticing Details in Illustrations:  Where is Mouse?  Once Mouse is introduced into the story, he/she can be found on each illustration thereafter, except the illustration where Bear says, “Wait!”  Have your child look for and point out the location of Mouse on each of the illustrations where he/she occurs. This activity is fun, but also allows the reader to extend the conversation with the child.  Extended conversations where the adult and child are talking and sharing verbal thoughts with each other are an excellent way to increase the child’s vocabulary.

Science Activity: Floating & Sinking

Materials needed:

  • Two same-size spoons: one plastic, one metal
  • Container of water, such as a plastic shoebox or kitchen sink
  • A variety of fruits, such as apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, kiwis
  • Clear plastic cup
  • Salt

Introduce the concept of floating and sinking with this activity, then have the family use the fruits to make and share a delicious fruit salad for Thanksgiving dinner.

Show your child the metal and plastic spoons side-by-side and ask him/her to explain how the spoons are alike (answers may include: both are spoons; they are the same shape; they are about the same size; they are used for the same purpose…to eat with; to scoop/dig with; to stir with; etc.).  

Then ask your child to describe how the spoons are different from each other (answers may include: they are a different color from each other; made of different materials; are different weights; etc.).  Let your child feel each spoon to verify that the metal spoon is heavier than the plastic spoon.

Hold up the metal spoon and ask if the spoon will sink or float when you drop it into a container or sinkful of water.  [Note: if you use a plastic shoebox as the container, it must be filled at least ¾ full in order for large fruit to float.]  After the child has guessed, drop the spoon into the water (it sinks). Next, hold up the plastic spoon and ask if the spoon will sink or float when you drop it into a container of water.  After the child has guessed, drop the spoon into the water (it floats). Show the spoons side-by-side again and ask why he/she thinks one spoon sunk and one floated (answer: the difference in weight; the metal spoon is heavier than the plastic spoon).  

[FYI: As the spoon pushes down on the water, the water is pushing up on the spoon. The force that is pushing down on the spoon is gravity; whereas the force pushing up on the spoon is buoyancy.   If the spoon is heavier than the same amount of water that would represent the spoon, then the spoon sinks.  The metal spoon is too heavy for the amount of water that is able to push up against it (so the spoon sinks), but the plastic spoon is lighter in weight than the amount of water that is able to push up against it (so the spoon floats).]

Experiment with a variety of fruits to see which will float. You can also mention that floating fruits enable their seeds to be transported over a great distance by way of water, such as a creek or river.  Use the same plastic container filled with water (or the kitchen sink) as a “pool” in which to float the fruit.  Select one fruit at a time and first have your child predict whether he/she thinks the fruit will float before placing each fruit in the water.  Note the following:

(a) If you select an apple and orange that are the same size as each other, it is interesting to see that they both will float in water.  

(b) However, if you then peel the orange, the orange will sink, whereas its peel will float.  So it is the orange’s peel that allows the orange to float because the peel has a large number of air pockets and citrus oil, making it lightweight.

(c) The banana will also float, however, if you remove its peel, the banana will still float, as will its separated peel.

(d) The grape (although small) will sink, as it is heavier than the equivalent amount of water that is able to push it upward.  However, if you place lots of salt in a clear plastic cup filled with water, then add the grape, the grape will float because you have increased the weight of the water pushing upward.  [The concept of density applies during floating and sinking activities.]

(e) The kiwi will sink, as it is heavier than the equivalent amount of water that is able to push upward.

Math Activity: Fruit Salad

Use the fruit from the above floating and sinking activity to make a fruit salad for your family.  As the fruit is cut, have your child (at a safe distance from the knife and cutting board) observe, listen, and participate in the portioning of the fruit.  As examples:

(a) Cut the fruit in half, then in half again; how many pieces of fruit are there now?

(b) Cut an apple in half, making the first cut horizontally to expose the “star-like” positioning of its seeds, then count the seeds.  

(c) As you cut slices of banana, count aloud the number of cuts you make or the number of pieces of banana you create.

(d) Allow your child to place an equal number of grapes into an agreed upon number of cups or bowls into which the remaining ingredients of the fruit salad will be placed.  Discuss Bear and his friends and their “sharing” nature.

Check out this recent Mom Advice Line Article you might enjoy: Toddler Sleep Regression (aka Toddler Torture)