Published Online: February 8, 2012

5 Tips for Talking to Children at Play

As educators of young children, we are charged with weighty responsibilities, such as increasing students' vocabulary, facilitating purposeful play, and promoting social-emotional skills. Scary but true: What we say (and do not say) during play-based learning can make a big difference for our students. In our busy classrooms, it is easy to slip into communication patterns that are comfortable for us, but do not help our students grow and learn.

Here are a few tips for communicating with young learners at play:

1) Use words that students do not yet know.

The 2000 National Reading Panel demonstrated that children learn most words incidentally. Since our students spend many of their waking hours at school in play-based learning, early childhood educators have plenty of opportunities to strengthen students' vocabularies. Yet when we talk to young children, it can be tempting to stick to words that we think are easy for them to understand. We should fight this tendency: If we are not exposing our students to words beyond those they hear at home, they are not developing the vocabulary that will later prove useful to them as readers and writers.

We should use rich vocabulary as part of our everyday communication and instruction. It is never too soon to expose young learners to "big words."

Elevating our word choices can be as simple as choosing more sophisticated synonyms. Instead of saying, "Good job!," we can praise students with statements like "That is exceptional work!," "Excellent effort!," or "You persisted!" And rather than observing, "It’s cold today," we can talk about how "blustery" or "frigid" the weather is.

By casually using new words (and explaining them, when necessary) as students take part in engaging activities, we can help to build their vocabularies.

2) Ask good questions.

Play ought to be engaging for our young learners—but it is also an opportunity to promote higher-order thinking skills and independent learning. Then we ask close-ended questions (with one right answer in plain sight), we limit what our students can learn during play. Instead, our questions should encourage students to engage more deeply and reflect on their own learning.

When students are excited to tell us about the structures they have built, we can extend their thinking by asking, "What would happen if we moved this block?" or "How many blocks would we need to add, to make your structure taller than you? How did you know that?" Or, while one student is performing a task (such as sorting objects), we might ask another student, "Do you think she should put this piece in that cup? Why? Why not?"

Most of our questions throughout the day should be open-ended questions that give us more bang for the educational buck by pushing students' thinking. Even when we do ask a one-right-answer question, we can respond with, "That’s right! Tell me how you knew that!," rather than just confirming the student is correct.

3) Encourage problem solving.

It is easy to offer shortcut answers when difficulties arise. But what’s best for students in the long run is to encourage them to solve their own problems.

When a student tattles, we may be tempted to say, "Okay, I will talk to him." But we can instead ask questions like, "That sounds frustrating—what did you do?"

If a student says, "I can’t do it," our first instinct may be to instruct, "Do it like this." However, she will learn to think about her learning if we ask her to predict outcomes of other approaches: "What do you think will happen if ... ?"

Of course, such exchanges require patience: We must give students the time they need to solve problems.

Also, we tend to overlook the strategy of requiring "wait time" before problem-solving because we fear the loss of young children’s attention. However, this is still a valuable strategy to keep in our toolbox, when the situation and individual child’s characteristics allow for it.

4) Respond thoughtfully to student behavior.

Researchers have shown (and all experienced educators have witnessed) that a student’s ability—or inability—to regulate himself and affiliate with others can make or break his educational experience. While they are still young, students need to learn to focus on tasks, take turns, and persevere even when they are frustrated. What does this mean for us as early childhood educators? How can we communicate with students in ways that enhance their self-regulation?

The "personal message," a social guidance technique implemented by the faculty of the Child Development Laboratories at Michigan State University, is a scripted sequence that educators can employ to respond to students’ behavior. This sequence involves reflecting, reacting (and giving reasons for our reactions), and redirecting young children. By communicating in this way, we can help young learners understand why and how to follow rules—teaching them how to behave rather than just telling them to behave. The result? Children are intrinsically motivated to follow rules, even when adults are not present.

Here’s how the personal message might look in a situation in which a student has taken another student’s toy. One way to respond would be to say, "Share!" But consider what the student learns when we respond thoughtfully:

• "You wanted that toy, too." We begin by reflecting on the student’s behavior. By showing that we are listening and watching, we demonstrate respect for the student, which establishes a healthy groundwork for the conversation.

• "I felt sad because you took the toy without asking." We react to the student’s behavior, and give a reason for our reaction. This provides the child a chance to see their actions from the perspective of others and to understand why others might feel the way they do. Often, adults will give a rule without explaining why that rule is important, as if we expect students to be born knowing how to behave. Giving a reason is necessary to promote the student’s understanding of the consequence of their action (even if the reason has been mentioned before).

• "Friends take turns. Try asking if you can please have the toy." The final step in a personal message is the statement of the rule or redirection. The last thing we say should be what we expect the student to do or what they should do instead.

Implementing this multi-step process effectively takes practice and dedication. (After all, it is easier to just say, "Share!") But when we consistently respond in this way, students begin to regulate their own behavior—and when we see that, there’s a genuine sense of payoff!

5) Plan ahead to facilitate purposeful play.

Planning can help us choose our words carefully. As with any effective lesson, we should think in advance about our own roles in purposeful play: considering word choices, possible questions to raise, and our objectives for conversations with students. With reflection and practice, we can move beyond "comfortable" communication patterns to engage meaningfully with our students all day long.

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