Take a Walk to Build Your Toddler's Language Skills

Introducing New Words Through Everyday Activities

Every moment you spend talking to and playing with your child helps her learn new words and language, but a stroll around your neighborhood may be the most perfect opportunity you have to stretch her verbal skills. It has the perfect mix of excitement and familiarity, allowing a toddler to feel like he's doing something special while still wrapped in a world where he feels comfortable so he will be at ease and primed to learn. To make the most of your adventure, take it slow and try some of these techniques to engage your child's senses and help her match words to her experiences.

Check the view from the neighbor’s house

Toddler sitting on grass looking at autumn leaf
Emma Kim/Cultura/Getty Images

Sitting in front of a stranger's house was one of my daughter's favorite activities as a toddler. Luckily, we live in a neighborhood with low brick walls around many of the homes, so we could plop ourselves down for a few minutes without trespassing or disturbing anyone. Every house had a quirk of its own that we would "talk" about as we rested: The pink flamingo in front of #732, the red door on #738, the garden elf hiding behind #752's azaleas. As we sat on those walls, I named objects, and then we became like those things we watched -- roaring like a stone lion, whispering secrets to silent ladybugs, and swaying our arms like the willow tree. You don't need to do a lot of talking for this rest time to be good for your child's language development. Your little one will likely find something fascinating to share with you along your journey like a weed in a crack or a cat in the window. Listen while he tells you in his toddler-speak about the wonders he sees. Even if the words aren't clear, he'll benefit from being part of the conversation.

Chase a butterfly

Florida Division of Tourism
Or a squirrel, or a rabbit...whatever animal or insect is likely to cross your path. Beforehand, brush up on some facts about the critters you expect to find during your short adventure. The first time you spot one, you can watch and tell your child about some of the fascinating things you know about it, such as the fact that butterflies taste with their feet. The next time you come across that same animal or bug, point out the features you mentioned. "See the tiny little feet. The butterfly tastes food with those." If you're lucky enough to spot the same creature a third time, ask and answer a question about what you just taught her: "How does the butterfly taste? With its feet." This simple game helps your child focus on details and, again, reinforces vocabulary words in a natural, conversational way.

Act like a dog


By age two, your child will likely be able to follow simple instructions. In the months leading up to that milestone, you can start playing games with your toddler in which you have her follow your lead. Try this out on your walk by creating a game in which you show her how to imitate the dogs or other pets you see along the way. "What is the dog doing?" You might ask when you see a furry friend barking up a tree. "Woof! Can you woof like a dog?" This one may require you to be willing to get down on all fours and act like a pet yourself: don’t worry what the neighbors think, your toddler will be delighted! And she'll be much more likely to understand how to play the dog herself if she's following your lead. Keep in mind, however, that you should be very careful about letting small children pet or play with dogs that do not know you.

Gather Treasures

pine cones
Even more exciting for a toddler than than sitting on a stranger's property is usually collecting things. Rocks, leaves, sticks, balls of fuzz, gum wrappers, dried gum...If it’s on the ground, it’s going to attract their attention. You can steer your treasure hunter away from the trash by trying to encourage him to find specific items. For instance, you can show him a stick, a leaf, or a pine cone. Then tell him, "Let’s find more of these!" Bring a bag to store your items and talk about them each time you pick one up:
"This pine cone is prickly."
"This stick is broken."
"Can you smell the flower?"
Point out the tree where a leaf fell from. Compare different types of rocks. Count the treasures you gather. While focusing on one item may help your little one build specific connections between words, don’t feel that you have to force her to concentrate on sticks or pine cones if she prefers to collect a menagerie of items. Afterwards, you can use your treasures to create a simple craft like a pine cone bird feeder.

Relive it with chalk

sidewalk chalk
Another way to wrap up your trip is by turning your adventure into a story. Pull out the sidewalk chalk and retell the tale of your walk while asking questions. This will let your toddler try out some of his own words. "Mommy and Little Guy went on a journey. First we met a lion. What did the lion say? Then what did we see that went woof?" Use the sidewalk chalk to draw simple pictures to go with your tale. This will keep your toddler focused on the story. Stick figures of mommy and Little Guy, a round face with a fuzzy mane are perfect...your toddler will not expect museum-quality portraits.

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