By Guest Writer Elizabeth Drayton
I’ll let you into a secret, I’m an English teacher, I’ve been teaching for nearly twelve years. I’ve taught general English, business English, English lessons for kids, medical English… you name it – I’ve taught it. But wasn’t until my eldest child, my beautiful boy at 6-years-old was diagnosed with autism that I really started to understand the importance of fun and enriching activities to help children learn English or any other subject.
“Enriching” is a strong word, it means giving something extra, going the extra mile, and that apart from teaching our children an academic lesson, there is something more involved: SKILLS that will help them in the future.
Enriching activities subtly empower our little learners by additionally reinforcing social skills, teamwork, leadership, empathy, intrinsic motivation or simply opening their fresh and eager minds to the amazing world that is at their feet.
I’d like to share with you today some of the activities I have developed to teach English to children inspired by my very special Timmy and his darling sister Ellie.
Using nature to inspire curiosity and responsibility
Every 8-year-old child has to learn about plants in school. They learn that the leaves make food, the stem supports the plant, the roots absorb the water and the flowers are for reproduction.
Let’s take that one step further, let’s use this simple topic as a way to inspire responsibility, nurture curiosity and unleash a sense of freedom and empowerment.
This is a topic that can span a few weeks – or even the whole year round, and it starts by planting seeds with your children. You can get seeds from the garden centre – or just use some lentils or chickpeas from the kitchen, it doesn’t matter. The kids will love it!
I always start with a yoghurt pot and some wet cotton wool. All you have to do is let your child sprinkle in a few seeds and make sure they don’t dry out. HERE is where they learn responsibility.
Steps to plant seeds with your kids:
- Take a yoghurt pot, cotton wool and some seeds.
- Children wet the cotton wool and sprinkle on some seeds.
- Leave the seeds in a sunny place and check daily if they need more water.
- Seeds will germinate and start to grow a root and shoot.
- Transfer to soil – either in the garden or in a plant pot.
English Vocabulary that you will need:
- Seed, root, sprout, green, leaf
- To water, to sprinkle, to plant, to check, to germinate
How this activity is a fun and enriching way to help your children learn English
Looking after a living plant is not easy – your children will have to check the cotton to see if it is wet enough – if not the plant will inevitably dry out and die.
Just watch as your little ones come running in from school to check on the progress of the seedlings as they grow – you and the kids alike will be amazed at how quickly the seeds sprout. Prepare yourself for a multitude of questions as their little minds try to process what is happening.
There is a wonderful book called The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle which is a fantastic way to complement this activity. The beautifully written text and colourful collage illustrations use the simple life cycle of a plant to tell an exciting story, provide a lesson in nature, and promote the importance of perseverance.
Unleashes a sense of freedom and empowerment
The key to achieving this is to truly let your kids be free – don’t be afraid of splashes or spills, let your children make a mess and have fun.
Allow their tiny fingers the freedom to explore the textures of dirt and water and mud. It is a great opportunity for your kids to work on those fine motor skills by opening seed packets, using scissors, pouring water and picking up seeds that will probably get spilled along the way.
If you can step back and let them enjoy this activity, this will be a powerful lesson for them in this sense.
Present simple routines and adjectives – enriched with social awareness skills learned from animals
Around the same time my son was diagnosed with high functioning autism we got a puppy. The truth is that I got the puppy for company for myself, because I am a single mum and I work alone from home as teacher trainer at an online English academy.
However, I soon learnt that an animal can be a great friend and an ally for any aspiring teacher or parent.
In our bilingual household the puppy was declared to speak and understand only English – so he became my little tool for widening my kids’ vocabulary.
Little did I know that through the puppy, my son would come to comprehend social behaviours that before he hadn’t even noticed!
We started to analyse social hierarchies, observe disciplinary behaviour and contemplate communication between dog and dog and then child and dog. Who knows, sometime in the future we may graduate to child and child!!!
And so, the initial idea of a companion dog developed into an opportunity to teach my children English, my native tongue. In time, this grew into a heart-warming enriching experience, extremely beneficial to each and every one of us in the family.
As fantastic as having a puppy is, I know that not all of you reading this are going to want to go to those lengths to help your kids learn English – however, I have some great ideas for activities involving animals which can provide truly enriching experiences for all the family.
Spend ‘English time’ with animals whenever possible
Nowadays there are many opportunities for children to spend time with animals, even if like me, you live in one of Europe’s capital cities. The trick to getting the most out of contact with animal is exactly that – contact.
For this reason, I am not too fond of zoos or safari parks and I prefer smaller more familiar situations with opportunities to get close up and personal.
In Madrid I’ve seen “Cat cafés” – where you can meet cats who are up for adoption or just enjoy their company as you slurp a hot chocolate and munch a nice piece of cake.
In Hamburg, the Hagenbeck petting zoo is a dream come true – you can feed the elephants, play with the goats and have fun with the monkeys for just 15€.
If you fancy learning about metamorphosis and admiring over 40 species of butterflies, then the Jardins des Papillons in Paris is the place for your family to visit – and it’s free to get in!
Plan complementary English language activities before your visit
Animals are an ideal means of practising adjectives with your children. Furthermore, if you plan the activities carefully, the children will need to develop observational and social awareness skills.
A fantastic way to incorporate both aspects into the visit is to prepare a checklist of behaviours or characteristics of the animals that children have to take a photo of.
The Garcia-Lopez family trip to the petting zoo
On our trip to the petting zoo, please look out for these things and take a photo:
- An animal eating on its own ⬜
- A group of animals eating ⬜
- A sleeping animal ⬜
- The fastest animal ⬜
- The ugliest animal ⬜
- The cutest animal ⬜
- Animals fighting or playing ⬜
- Baby animals with their families ⬜
- The heaviest animal ⬜
- A tiny animal ⬜
At the end of the day as you go through the children’s checklists, and look at all their photos, you can really take the time to talk about the behaviours and social situations in the animal groups. Ask lots of open questions to encourage them to actively think about what is happening like:
- Why is the animal eating on its own? Would the animal share the food with another adult? What about sharing with a baby?
- How fast were the animals in a group eating? Why were they eating fast? What would happen if they ate slower? Does the animal know this?
- Why is the animal ugly? What do you think makes it ugly? Does its mother think it is ugly? Does it know that it is ugly?
- How do you know if the animals are fighting or playing? How did the fighting or playing stop? Was it spontaneous or did another animal stop them? Have you ever been in a situation where you want to play but you end up fighting?
- What do you think about the baby animals with their families? Is anybody missing from the family meeting?
Another activity is to ask the children to find out the routines and feeding schedules of the animals. Here you can practise the present simple to talk about routines and extend the activity to encourage the children to reflect on their own routines and reasons for sticking to them.
My favourite activity on any occasion is face-painting. My boy doesn’t like his face being painted, but he will allow me to sketch a snake on his arm, or a cute puppy ‘tattoo’. Now is a good time to ask the children to consider what makes a butterfly beautiful, a tiger fierce or a puppy cute.
Perhaps your child would prefer a Pokémon®, or to paint your face. That’s OK too, let them enjoy the moment and take advantage of the opportunity to come to some conclusions about emotions, beauty, and the physical aspects of social concepts for a truly enriching experience.
Written by Elizabeth Drayton teacher trainer at Break Into English where you can get affordable online classes for the whole family.