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As the Postgraduate Lead for Early Years, I decided to highlight the research and positive link between outdoor activities and gardening with vocabulary, language development and learning to read. Although this is predominantly focused on young children, much of this can be adapted for older children too.

Child Psychologist, Dr Sandra Scott says: “Fundamentally, gardening can improve children’s key cognitive, motor, personal and social skills which could help them progress both academically and socially.”


Vocabulary development is not a case of simply saying as many words as possible to your child. A child needs to be able to say, repeat, play and understand the words for them to go into the long-term memory bank, and by allowing a child to experience using the senses, this reinforces vocabulary.

  • By three years old children will be able to use about 300 words
  • By the time a child reaches five years old they’ll know and use as many as 2,500 words
  • A child’s vocabulary when they are five years old can tell us how well they’ll do at school at age 11 


You know your child better than anyone else and as their first teacher, you can understand the communication of your child when others fail to do so. Speaking with your child is important, but just as important is listening! 

Children have an innate desire to be outdoors, but particularly with nature. Most researchers believe that young children are naturally curious. Children grow and thrive when supported to play, explore, discover. Again, depending on the stage of the child, you may have non-fiction books to support this.

The main question you may wish to ask yourself is: What does the outdoor offer that the indoor doesn’t? 

Being outside in the garden offers an amazing opportunity for growth in language development and vocabulary, therefore, directly influencing early reading. The outdoors can offer a place of safety and relaxation, which are both needed for deep learning.

Remember, when teaching early reading through gardening / outdoor activities, primarily children learn through play.


Get to know your garden - At any point that your child is distracted by something, engage with their distraction; you never know where it might lead. For example, you may come across a butterfly, worm or snail - seize the opportunity to explore. 

Go on a garden walk - Identify the different areas of your garden by playing ‘I spy’. Depending on the stage of a child you could ‘spy’ things beginning with a certain letter. Choosing the first letter of their name may engage your child even more. 

Play a describing game without objects - Can your child guess what you are describing? For example, ‘it’s small, it can fly, it has spots, it is red’. Again, this game can be made more difficult depending on your child. Can they describe something?  

Let’s talk Nature!

A ladybird or a worm wants to visit your garden, suggest that you make a map of the garden, using pictures to help the ladybird or worm…

  • Use the map to make a treasure hunt
  • Allow children to make you a treasure hunt
  • You could use signs/pictures, and so on
  • Why not try a bug hunt?

Could they describe a ladybird or worm to expand their vocabulary?

  • Use a magnifying glass
  • Draw
  • Give it a name
  • Make up / read a story, for example: ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’

Allow your child to take photos so that you see what they are interested in. Use their photos and reflect on them, identifying key vocabulary that you could use when discussing their photo. 

  • Why has your child chosen specific areas? 
  • What does this tell you about their interests? 
  • How can you build on this?


Learning to read progresses in phases and is much more than just phonics (teaching reading by learning the sounds that groups of letters make when spoken). However, phonics does have its place and being in the garden offers an opportunity to engage with this initial phase. Phase one of letters and sounds concentrates on developing children's speaking and listening skills, and lays the foundations for further development. Key adult behaviours such as listening to encourage talking, showing active listening (which involves making eye contact and commenting to extend spoken communication) and speaking to a child in well-spoken, clear and confident structured sentences, all support this. 

A final note…

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are all spending much more downtime at home, so why not make the most of this time to enjoy moments of peace; soak up all that the garden has to offer; sit alongside your child, eat, drink, sing and enjoy these precious moments. 

During the evening, and the next few days, recall, review, retell, sequence some of the interesting stories from the garden (listen to this language of storytelling, yes, you really are teaching reading!). The possibilities are endless...

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