Fresh Air Phonics! (Take Phonics Games Outside)
Daily phonics is an essential and integral part of everyday learning in a primary school, so sometimes both teachers and pupils start to feel that they are on an endless phonics treadmill. So why not revitalise your phonics sessions with a dash of fresh air and fun, by taking the children outside to play some hands-on phonics games?
We all know that day light, sunshine and the natural environment improve both pupils and staff’s well-being, so what’s not to love about taking phonics learning outside and reaping the multiple benefits at the same time as ringing in a change?
With more sensational sunshine on the way and the Summer term now underway, don’t forget to make the most of your outdoor environment and venture outdoors as much as possible.
The kids will love the chance to learn outdoors and engagement and involvement will soar too! Even if the weather changes, wind and rain can all provide an atmospheric environment to heighten the senses and stimulate learning. My motto is ‘Whatever the weather, outside is better!’
Early Years Foundation Stage
Early Phonics in the EYFS lends itself perfectly to harnessing the wonders of the great outdoors. Children start their phonics journeys by learning to listen to, imitate and discriminate between the many sounds that surround them.
Even as babies, they learn to listen to environmental sounds and start to make their own noises and sounds. Once at nursery or pre-school children love to investigate letters and sounds through games and free play, as well as through some adult directed activities like listening to stories, participating in singing and games.
The DfES Letters and Sounds Publication advocates that children benefit greatly from exposure to books from an early age; stories, poetry, rhymes and non-fiction all enhance a child’s understanding of the world they live in and fire children’s imaginations and interests.
It makes sense to have an inviting reading den like a Jungle Play Den or Reading Teepee in any outdoor educational setting, where children can choose to immerse themselves in a land of fascinating facts or fantastical fantasy.
A sturdy Covered Sandpit provides the ideal environment for inspiring curiosity about letters and sounds, where little pirates can dig for buried ‘phonic treasure’. Why not bury objects that start with different sounds so they can discover and sort them into buckets? Write letters or simple CVC words (Consonant, Vowel, Consonant) on pebbles and watch your adventurers embark on a phonics fossil hunt. Attach sound labels to creatures such as dinosaurs and let the children explore and play and start to recognise the hidden world of phonic sounds buried in their messy play area.
Now it’s the Summer Term many Foundation Stage children will be beginning to enjoy sounding out, blending and reading simple CVC words and will love digging up sound pebbles and even start to naturally explore word building.
A durable, multi-functional Water Table, complete with a handy lid to keep the contents clean and dry, can provide hours of phonics fun, allowing children to fish for phonic sounds using simple fishing nets.
Writing targeted graphemes on ping pong balls provides a cheap and fun option to create bobbing phonics fish! Or using a permanent pen to mark letters onto strong cleaning sponges, cut out in the shape of sea creatures is a fun, tactile alternative. Or why not recycle those plastic milk bottle lids, by writing on the graphemes you’d like to reinforce.
Your children will also get to observe and learn about the importance of recycling, the properties of materials and observe floating and sinking, whilst fishing for phonemes; this all will help to increase their knowledge and understanding of the world.
Mixing up a batch of ‘Silly Soup’ using the Playtime Kitchen or concocting a ‘Perfect Potion’ in a pan using the Mud Kitchen, both provide perfect environments for children to start to listen to alliteration, rhyme and to begin to learn to discriminate between sounds. For example, children can add a b-a-t bat , a h-a-t hat, a c-a-t cat to their crazy mixture and start to segment words orally into its component sounds. Even bashing the metal trays, pots and pans and spoons etc can provide a useful, great fun medium for listening to and enjoying environmental sounds. Find more information on lyrics to silly soup song here!
A colourful, vibrant outdoor Musical Area also creates perfect opportunities for young children to learn to listen to, identify and copy sounds and rhythms and patterns. Listening and matching the sounds to the instruments played is always a popular game and children can learn about musical instruments and get creative with their compositions, as well as develop memory skills required to repeat a melody or a rhythm.
Recognising sounds and remembering sound sequences are both important foundation skills, underpinning secure phonics learning and understanding.
Just simply embarking on regular sound walks around the preschool, nursery or school grounds also builds up pupils’ ability to listen attentively and to be able to discriminate between auditory sounds. Lettersandsounds.com has a set of funny, giant listening ears that children can cut out and wear to emphasise listening on a sound walk!
Phonics Fun at Key Stage 1
But it’s not just the EYFS playground that can effectively come alive with phonics inspiration! The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check is looming on the horizon once again, when every June, the Year 1 children take part in a 1:1 reading quiz, aimed as a ‘light-touch assessment’. This statutory reading assessment allows teachers to monitor the children’s grasp of deciphering the British phonics code, where they demonstrate they can sound out phonetically and blend together to read forty words. Half of these are real words and half are nonsense words, set purely to provide a word outside the children’s vocabulary range, thus ensuring they only use their phonics knowledge to decode the words, rather than draw upon their comprehension skills and former reading vocabulary. These non-words are often known as ‘alien words’, as the nonsense words all have a picture of a colourful alien beside them. So, for busy year 1 teachers, the Summer Term is a time where much reinforcement and practice of phonics occurs, so taking phonics outside is an appealing and welcome option for all involved!
I certainly personally find that, as an industrious class teacher, armed with my ‘wheelie phonics crate’, I can easily take phonics outside at any moment. Having a class ‘Outdoor Phonics Kit’ containing the relevant stages of flash cards, sight words, hoops, bean bags, fly swats, pegs, washing line, word/sound pebbles, wooden phonic disks, magnetic letters and tubs and a selection of ‘sound sacks’ full of tactile objects containing the different phonics in, makes zooming outside for a bit of phonics fun in any free minutes a real option!
I find my old toast rack a perfect carrier for my sight words and flash cards, separating the sets for easy access for differentiated groups, making personalised learning outdoors very feasible, without much preparation time. I call it my ‘Grab n Go’ rack! I set groups off with different phonics-based activities around the play ground and still fit in some 1:1 targeted sound and word time for those who need extra support. A little and often certainly helps to build up their phonic skills, if they’re find it a bit tricky.
Get Up and Go!
One of the children’s firm favourites is ‘Splat the Sound/Wack the Word’, where we sit in a circle around a range of spread out word cards featuring focus phonemes. Four children have a fly swatter. And we all sing to the tune of ‘Round and Round the Garden’ “Around and around the circle, looking for a word, splat it, catch it, splat the sound we heard!” Then the teacher (or child acting as a teacher) selects a phoneme card and we all read it (for example ‘ai’) and the kids with the fly swots then run around the circle and enter the circle and swot any words with the ‘ai’ grapheme in them! A game getting children up and active and well as reading and laughing!
I always find that ‘Get Up and Go’ games are the best for shaking the cobwebs off and for maximising participation. Another simple favourite for outdoor phonics fun, which needs little preparation, but the kids love, is the game ‘Explorers Go!’ where children run to the 4 points of the compass, North South East West (at chosen points in play space), where there are large sound cards positioned. Compass Playground Markings can be useful to help to locate and teach the actual compass directions for your setting. I like to spread the 4 sound cards as far apart as possible and all the children gather in the imaginary pirates’ ship in the middle. When we select a word card from the treasure chest, the children listen and when the teacher shouts ‘Explorers Go!’ they run as fast as they can to the compass point where the sound is located. This is great for reinforcing and assessing the children’s knowledge of alternative phonemes. I always show the written card at the end of each go, so that children can see the correct sound choice and run to the correct grapheme, if they’ve not chosen correctly first time. Using a real Log play Ship or Clipper Play Boat as your central point for children to gather, would add an even more exciting element to this simple phonics game.
Play Ground Markings are another easy way to create active outdoor games with a phonics focus. With an Alphabet Caterpillar or A-Z Spiral children can physically hop or jump from letter to letter to spell out a word, identify an initial, middle or final sound or spell out a phoneme. Children are particularly fond of playing games on the Phonics Frog and Pond, where they can jump on identified graphemes when listening to a word. They also enjoy using giant playground chalks to add any other phonemes that they may like to incorporate into new games they invent. Children could simply use markings from a Playground Adventure Trail/Exercise Course to pick up word/picture/alien word cards along the route and place them in the correct hoops or buckets labelled with targeted phonemes, placed around the track.
Target Panels and Multi-Ball Walls can be quickly adapted to create exciting phonics target walls, by temporarily fixing up targeted phonics labels. Children can then select word cards from baskets, blend the phonics to read the words out loud and then throw bean bags or balls at the corresponding target matching the digraph or trigraph they’ve spotted from the word. One of my favourite simple outdoor phonics games has to be ‘Phonic Planes’ where the children read or write a word written on paper and then love to fold it into an aeroplane and send it flying into a corresponding sound bucket/target hoop! This incorporates engineering skills as well as develops fine motor skills.
If you’re looking for even more physical challenge, Climbing Fun can provide the setting for an active phonics activity, where children climb from letter to letter on a Climbing Wall to spell words and match letters to phonemes that are called out. The longer the word, the more exercise they receive and this also offers a great chance to practice lower case/uppercase correspondence, as the Climbing Holds are in the capital format.
Sometimes it’s useful to place phonics and words within the context of a sentence, to help with comprehension and to reinforce meaning. Den Posts provide the perfect place to string up temporary washing lines, so children can independently or collaboratively peg up grapheme cards to build words or peg up word cards to build sentences on a larger scale, outdoors. This provides a great opportunity to reinforce grammar and punctuation, by having a range of word baskets full of colour-coded verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and punctuation marks and capital letters, where children can explore sentence building, whilst having fun and once again improving their fine motor skills. They like making up nonsense sentences as well as creative ones! It’s all good segmenting, blending and reading practice and reinforcing the phonemes.
For a natural option, we wrote nouns, adjectives and adverbs on pebbles with colourful, ceramic paint pens and placed them in wooden baskets. The children then went on a stick hunt and laid them down, overlapping in a grid, forming a set of 3 by 3 squares. We then created fun 3 words to a line, 3 line poems using patterns like using an adjective, noun and an adverb in each line. It was very hands-on, tactile and the children made super poems. This activity is easy to extend to include a verb or any other grammar focus.
Another fun activity for writing words and encouraging children to segment to spell, is to harness the enthusiasm created when children play imaginatively in a Mud Kitchen and encourage your little mud-chefs to write out their recipes or menus, using clip boards, laminated menu sheets or just using large chalks on the ground. Yummy!
Enjoying Stories and Language
If none of these ideas resonate with you, why not simply make time to share lovely stories and big books outdoors? The beautiful, natural Storytellers Chair provides a stunning focal point for both children and adults to read or tell a story to the class. We all know that the vocabulary gap between those children that read regularly and those that don’t radically affects children’s future success both in school and in life. Creating magical outdoor moments and introducing new, active outdoor games and sharing exciting, rich vocabulary and wonderful story language outside, may just provide the spark some children need to ignite an interest and create a love and understanding of reading and writing, that they will take with them into the future!