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Widening vocabulary

Advice on creating an early years environment that widens children's vocabulary and encourages them to use it.

Why widening vocabulary is important

Babies are constantly showing that they want to communicate as they respond to different types of stimulation.

You should work to enrich all children’s vocabulary whatever their starting point. Whether young infants or children with additional needs or children with English as an additional language.

You should describe experiences using the correct vocabulary, playing alongside children. Encourage and support children with their first attempts to use wider vocabulary.

You could describe aspects of the social, cultural, ecological and technological areas of learning as a way of demonstrating new vocabulary to the children. In the diverse world section we discuss the social and cultural aspects of life and learning. There are opportunities for new vocabulary here.

Technological aspects of life and learning include devices like mobile phones, tablets, TVs, computers, cash machines, supermarket check-outs and cameras. Babies and children observe how adults use these and this helps widen their vocabulary.

Ecological aspects of life and learning include children’s attention to resources being recycled, reused, reduced and repurposed.

Both technological and ecological aspects of life and learning include confidence in science. Children will start to learn scientific ideas as they take part in exploratory play with natural materials, gardening, musical instruments, cooking experiences, art materials and outdoors, where children have direct experience of the weather and the seasons.

Having books and images in your setting that support all these interests and aspects of understanding the world support children to gain their early literacy skills.

Understanding the world presents the young child with a vast range of language and literacy possibilities.


In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of widening vocabulary in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the EYFS framework says

Enriching and widening children’s vocabulary will support later reading comprehension.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 10, childminder EYFS, page 11, group and school-based EYFS.

What this means in practice

Enriching and widening vocabulary, within the context of understanding the world, should happen daily. Talk is a key resource and is relevant for all children, from the very youngest, to those who will soon transition to reception.

Creating a culture of trust and striving for some consistency in language without losing diversity, is an on-going process.

To encourage social and cultural inclusivity, make sure you use the correct words to describe religions, languages spoken, pronunciation of names and special events.

Enhance ecological awareness by using words to describe changes within the natural world, including animals, plants, flowers, trees and birds. The seasons are a natural resource for children to observe, feel and experience the weather.

To develop an understanding of the technological world use words to describe the technological devices babies and children experience.

Children are aware of the technological world as babies. They see TV, tablets, mobile phones and laptop screens from birth. You need to acknowledge technology by playing alongside children and be actively engaged in their learning. These are important observations to see how knowledgeable children are, for example pretending a wooden block is a mobile phone.

Suggested activities

Make a collection

It’s important for children to begin to understand the concept of the past. They can do this by making links with their personal experiences and knowledge. Collecting artefacts on a theme works very well and motivates plenty of talk and thinking about the past. There is an important link with technology and how things work. Charity shops are a great source for items.

Examples of collections include:

  • toys: this might be toys in general or maybe choose teddy bears, vehicles, dolls, construction toys or clockwork toys
  • kitchen utensils: spoons and mixing bowls, wooden, ceramic, plastic, melamine and stainless steel
  • cameras: box cameras, SLRs, instamatics, digital or mobiles; accompanying photographs strengthen the historical focus
  • computers for technology corner

For this plan the focus is on cameras and photographs.

Arrange a display of cameras and photographs from the earliest you can find to the latest. Make sure you are happy for the children to handle them. If you can find photographs to match the cameras even better.

Observe how the children approach the display. Can they make the connection between the photographs and the different cameras? Some children will be curious about the mechanisms and how the cameras work, others will be fascinated by the differences in the photographs. What do they tell you?

Interact with the children as they explore. Introduce language about how old each camera is, relating to the ages of people they are familiar with. ‘Here’s a camera like the one my parents used.’

Widen vocabulary by using words to describe how the cameras work, the different parts of the cameras, whether they are old, not so old, modern, new. Use language that describes time, such as, the past, a long time ago; recent, when you were a baby.

For very young children make collections that are very safe to handle if a child puts the objects in their mouth.

Build on a child’s natural curiosity and choose a collection that you know they are interested in.

The focus is on the children questioning, describing, and widening their vocabulary of time, as well as technological vocabulary (communication and language). Handling the objects develops the children’s fine motor skills (physical development). Plenty of mathematical language will be used to describe shape, quantity, size and age, comparative words such as older than, oldest, new and newest (mathematics).

Create a recycling plant

Ask parents and carers to donate things to be recycled, for example:

  • old clothes
  • handbags, purses, shoes or other accessories
  • old jewellery
  • boxes and containers
  • different types of paper, including wrapping paper, wallpaper
  • rope, string, twine
  • buttons

The children could also collect:

  • sticks
  • pebbles
  • shells
  • dry leaves
  • crates for sorting

Check all the resources before you start to ensure everything is suitable and clean.

Find an area to become the ‘recycling centre’. You can make a big sign so that everyone is aware of the recycling project. If you have a lot of donations you can set up your recycling centre outside.

This activity will allow you to promote the ecological language around recycling:

  • recycle, changing a material into something new, like paper
  • reuse, using something over and over again, like a bag
  • reduce, minimising how much of a material you use, like reducing plastic
  • repurpose, using a material for a different function, for example a plastic bottle filled to be made heavy becomes a toy baby

Explain to the children that you have received lots of different materials that need to be sorted, and maybe they would like to help.

Together with the children look at what you have and start to decide how everything could be sorted into the crates.

Some children may be willing to either draw or mark make and label the crates so that everyone knows where everything should go.

As the children sort, notice what the children are interested in, if they either find a use for a resource and want to do that straight away, or make suggestions about where materials can go in the setting, let them. Some children will have a model in mind, others will want to add to their kitchen, musical instruments, or create a prop for role play.

On another day, try using magnets and introduce sorting for wood and metal materials, metallic and non-metallic.

The recycling centre can become a permanent fixture and added to daily or weekly. Some children will want to oversee this regularly and claim ownership.

Thinking about and actively recycling links with children’s social development and their developing sense of community (personal, social and emotional development). For older and more articulate children there are opportunities to introduce the ecological language about the recycling, reusing, reducing and repurposing (communication and language). The children use their fine motor skills and coordination when sorting. With larger objects, they’re using their gross motor skills and muscular strength (physical development).

Other activities

Look for local workplaces that focus on technology and arrange a visit. For example a cybercafe.

Local recycling organisations are eager to be involved with community settings. A great resource for recycled materials.

Ideas on computing and appropriate programs for very young children.

The website for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum has many inspiring images.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“We focus on giving the children the vocabulary in the ‘real’ word. So, in the children’s play we include the vocabulary we want to introduce. Recently we have focused on volcanoes, the interest came from the children. You have to research the subject.”

Mandy, Naturally Learning, Truro.

“Our allotment is a place where all the children can be free and active outside.”

Julie, childminder, Ilkley.

“Our families are bilingual and trilingual, so we work hard to understand which language is spoken by which family member. It’s important we get it right.”

Cathey, Bright Horizons, Harrow.


  • Understanding the world presents the young child with a wide range of language and literacy possibilities.
  • When you describe experiences using the correct vocabulary children can learn new words.
  • You could describe social, cultural, ecological and technological areas of learning demonstrating new vocabulary to the children.
  • You could create a trusting atmosphere where the children can support each other with technical language.

Next steps

  • Have a team discussion, or reflect with a colleague or another childminder, on all the aspects of daily life that reflect modern technology. Then see how this is evident in babies’ and children’s play.
  • Look at the books you have to see if any reflect the modern technological world. You may want to make a book with the older children, this can be from their perspective.
  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.