Mother Nature Grows Language!


Mother Nature Grows Language!Outdoor education has long been shown to have multiple benefits for children. Research shows it improves self-esteem, leadership skills, relationships with peers, motivation to learn, cooperation, conflict resolution and behavior in class.

One often overlooked potential benefit to exploring nature is the opportunity for great speech and language development in toddlers and preschoolers.

Walking a trail, rolling around in the grass, taking a picnic, putting a bug in a jar, jumping in a puddle, making a snowman, catching a fish or a tadpole…these are all fantastic conversation starters for our little people. In a time when we are inclined to ask for the best app or set of flashcards to help a child learn more words, we may forget about the world of vocabulary outside our front door.

When looking to grow the speech and language skills of toddlers and preschoolers, some of the best techniques include the following:

Modeling and repeating language

Rather than asking questions like “What’s this?” or “What’s that?,” modeling language that is one step above your child’s level is a great way to get them to imitate, learn new vocabulary and produce more complex language.  If your child is talking in 1-2 word utterances, model a lot of 2-3 word utterances. This strategy invites them to repeat phrases that aren’t too challenging.

For example:

Child: “Cow!”

Parent: “Yes! It’s a cow.”

Child: “Issa cow?”

Parent: “That’s right. It’s a cow!”


Re-word your child’s utterance, which may be incomplete or short, into a complete utterance.

Child: “doggie eat.”

Parent: “The dog is eating.”


Repeat what your child says with more detailed or correct language.

Child: “It’s a chikmunk!”

Parent: “I see the chipmunk! He is a little chipmunk. The chipmunk is climbing a tree.”

Self-talk and parallel-talk

Talk about what you are doing. Talk about what your child is doing. This is an effective way to model language with new vocabulary and increased complexity. Be sure to give your child plenty of pause time so they have a chance to respond or initiate conversation.

Self-talk from parent: “I am digging a hole with my shovel. I am going to put the seeds in the hole. Then flowers will grow someday!”

Parallel talk from parent: “You have a shovel, too. You are digging a deep hole. There are three seeds in your hole. I wonder if three flowers will grow?”

All of these strategies commonly used by teachers and speech-language pathologists to facilitate language development are perfect for use in the great outdoors.

Think about how you can facilitate language when:

  • playing in the backyard
  • riding a bike
  • splashing in a baby pool
  • squirting the hose
  • drawing with sidewalk chalk
  • taking a walk
  • playing basketball, baseball, soccer, etc.
  • having a catch with a beach ball

For parents who have concerns about their child’s speech-language development, University of Tennessee Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology offers a unique Outdoor Clinic where children of all ages receive speech therapy in a natural setting. For more information, check out the website.

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Tricia Hedinger
Hello! My name is Tricia and I am an associate professor in the Department of Audiology & Speech Pathology at University of Tennessee in Knoxville with specialties in stuttering and early childhood language. I am a mom to 3 girls, including 10 year old twins and a 14 year old, and a stepmom to 2 boys in their twenties. In 2013, my husband, Richard, and I relocated to Knoxville from Delaware. He grew up in NY and I in Pennsylvania. We love the small city feel of Knoxville, the proximity to the mountains and the fantastic community that surrounds us in our Farragut home. We spend our evenings and weekends on the sidelines cheering on our kids in various sporting events. My primary hobby is driving children from one place to another. I have a passion for anti-bullying movements, outdoor education and building support group networks around the world. I host a podcast entitled "Stutter Stories" to help share the voices of people who stutter internationally. I am a huge fan of thinking globally and acting locally. I am glad to be a part of Knoxville Moms and feel inspired when parents connect to take action for the well-being of each other and their children.


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