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By Julia Solovieva – Language teacher with more than 10 years of experience in teaching English as a second language. You can follow her on FB on Random English.
Considering the fact that young children mainly learn through play, there can be many creative ways to teach a new language to children with toys.
What is more, a toy doesn’t have to be meant specifically for language learning to have educational value.
You can easily use the toys you already have to teach your child a foreign language – just by playing with them a little differently.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the many different ways you can use toys creatively to teach your child a second language.
Why use toys?
Young children learn through playing games.
They don’t really need any special learning aids: textbooks, workbooks, instructional videos, etc. On the contrary, materials like these can be confusing to young kids and prevent learning.
Toys are familiar, easy-to-understand things. Toys are also easily adaptable for language learning: at the very least, each toy has a name and a color that can be named in the target language.
Toys engage children, encourage them both to play and to talk.
You don’t have to do much to turn almost any toy into a language learning tool.
Creative ways to teach a new language to children with toys
Regular toys can be used in many different ways to help your child learn a second language. Let’s take a look at a few examples!
Introduce new vocabulary
Toys are great for introducing new vocabulary! Everything has a name – toys and toy parts, and the things they can do.
Take a dollhouse, for example.
Most dollhouses have dozens of elements, and while playing with one, you can easily introduce the names of objects and actions that can be performed with them.
One of the easiest ways to introduce new vocabulary with toys is to simply point to a toy and name it in the target language – at least a few times to help the child remember the new word.
You can then do a few different things:
- Ask the child to repeat after you
- When asking the child to pass you the toy, use its name in the target language
- Ask the child to name this or that toy in the target language
Apart from their names, toys have many qualities: colors, sizes, shapes, etc.
Farm toys, for instance, are great not only for introducing names of animals and other related vocabulary, they can be used to study adjectives as well.
When introducing adjectives, make sure it is clear to the child what you are referring to.
For instance, if you have a black cow and a pink pig in the set, first introduce the name of the animals and then their colors.
It would be helpful in this case if there are several animals of the same kind (say, cows) but different colors in the set.
For kids 3-4 years old and older, LEGO sets can be a great way to introduce both names of objects and their qualities.
Depending on the set, there will be lots of different elements belonging to different categories, with different colors, sizes, and other features.
Introduce the concepts ‘same’ and ‘different’
After you introduce names of the toys and their qualities like colors or sizes, you can group ‘same’ objects together and ‘different’ objects into different categories: people and animals, big and small objects, etc.
It will not only help your child learn these two concepts themselves, but reinforce the vocabulary they have already learned with the toys.
Act out verbs
There are many things the toys can ‘do’: even with a soft toy, many verbs can be introduced and acted out, let alone such inherently more interactive toys as dollhouses, farmhouse or LEGO sets.
Think of the activities that are most associated with this or that particular toy, and gradually introduce them in the target language when playing with your toddler.
You can also use the play-time to introduce and practice the verbs associated with handling the toys: giving, passing, hiding, opening, closing, etc.
Practice simple questions and answers
After you introduce new vocabulary, ask simple questions to the child, like: Is it a pig? Is it pink? Is it running?
Naturally, the exact questions will differ, depending on the toys and the vocabulary you have already covered.
This helps your child to both consolidate the vocabulary they have learned and master simple questions and answers.
After the child masters yes/no questions, try more open wh- questions: What is it? What color is it? What is he/she/it doing?
These questions are a bit more complicated in nature, so don’t start with them without introducing new vocabulary properly and practicing yes/no questions first.
It is quite easy to make up stories with toys like dollhouses, farmhouse or LEGO sets: they are essentially several toys in one, a compact base for many stories.
But even a single teddy bear can go on an adventure!
Come up with stories together with your child and think of ways the foreign language vocabulary you have learned can be integrated into them.
For instance, in some cases, you can only move forward with the story if the right target language vocabulary is used, as if it were a key or a password.
Let your child do their own thing
How can you come up with different ways of using toys in language learning? Just watch your child play.
After all, toys are meant for kids, and this is the area where ‘kids know best’.
Take some time to watch your child playing with the toys, either before you have used them for language learning or after you have exhausted your own ideas. They may surprise you and play with a toy in ways you haven’t expected.
By paying attention like this, you will also see the toys and ways of playing your child prefers – and make the most of them for future language learning.