Early Years Focus outlines three main factors which will affect your setting’s ability to develop early years communication skills, and then offers a list of practical ideas for you to initiate which support them

Communication involves giving and receiving messages in many different ways – often using spoken words, written words, symbols and pictures. Ideas, feelings and information are also communicated through movement, gesture and body language, as well as musical and artistic expression.

Children’s knowledge and ideas about the world and how it works develop through communication and collaboration with other children and adults. To support them in this process, we need to create an environment for communication that provides children with opportunities to develop relationships, and to become confident, competent communicators.

Factors which determine how effective an environment might be for developing communication fall under three main categories:

1. Your ethos and philosophy: Good relationships, between children and between adults and children, are central to successful communication within your setting. This means all staff actively engaging children in conversation, listening to what they have to say, respecting their ideas and valuing their opinions. The very youngest children will have views on what they like and don’t like and will communicate their preferences in different ways. Consulting children about your environment will develop their communication skills and may provide you with some interesting ‘food for thought’.

2. Daily routines: The daily encounters that occur between children, family members and practitioners are important opportunities for communication. Paying attention to the quality of experiences at the beginning of the day when children arrive at your setting, and at the end of the day when they are reunited with their families, encourages strong relationships and open communication. Allow time for ‘welcomes’ and ‘goodbyes’ and for listening to what parents and children have to say.

3. Organisation of your physical environment: When thinking about the physical environment, can you identify spaces for encounters, speaking and listening, and for creative expression?

Practical ideas
With these aspects of your environment in mind, below are some practical ideas for encouraging good communication in the children at your setting:

  • Make the most of opportunities throughout the day for communicating with babies and toddlers. Having a conversation, or singing rhymes, when nappy changing, feeding or playing out of doors will help to foster early communication skills.
  • Mealtimes are important social occasions in which children can develop their skills of talking, listening and turn-taking in conversations. Here they can practise the art of good manners – when to say please and thank you, how to treat others with courtesy and consideration and how to show appreciation. The role of the adult in modelling the expectations of social interaction here is vital. Allow time for mealtimes to be relaxed social occasions in pleasant surroundings – consider introducing tablecloths, flowers and menus.
  • Children need space to move within and between rooms, and between the indoors and the outdoors as well, as opportunities to encounter other children of different ages. To move around confidently children need the time and opportunity to develop an understanding of how different spaces are connected to one another. Try to provide opportunities, within the course of each week, for all children to experience being in different parts of your setting, meeting and communicating with others.
  • ‘Communication boxes’ provide an ideal way to support and develop children’s communication skills, through their encounters with others. The boxes can be used by children to exchange tokens, pictures and messages with their friends. From babyhood, small tokens such as pebbles, shells and pictures can be exchanged. As children grow older their means of communication will broaden to include drawings, early mark-making and writing.
  • Listening attentively is not easy and requires lots of practice. Using unusual sounds as signals to indicate that something is about to happen will encourage children to use their ‘sound awareness’ throughout the day. Try a tape of birdsong to indicate that the doors to the outdoor area are open, a gong to signal lunchtime, and wind chimes to signify a quiet time.
  • As children’s mastery of spoken language develops they need something interesting to talk about. A range of interesting resources, which are changed frequently, will stimulate conversation and questions. Finding an object where it is least expected, a decorated egg under a bush for example, will stimulate interest and could lead to the creation of stories. Drawing attention to interesting things in the outdoor environment – a spider’s web, a rainbow, a sunbeam or a shadow – will prompt questions and discussion.
  • Remember that young children can communicate in many different ways long before they can read or write, or even speak. They will express themselves through painting, drawing and making models; music, movement and dance; role play and performance. An effective environment for communication will include good quality resources for drawing and mark-making alongside most of the other activities available in the setting, thereby encouraging children to draw pictures of their ideas and create their own symbolic languages.

Links with EYPS Standards: S8,S10,S11,S15,S26,S27
Links with Ofsted SEF: 3,4b,4d,4f

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update www.alcassociates.co.uk