Early learners want to play!

by Ariel Hudnall

A guest post by Ariel Hudnall, an English teacher in Kyoto, Japan. Ariel graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Japanese Languages and Cultures and is currently producing a mini web series on Kyoto's history and culture. Her website, Peach Press, chronicles her adventures in teaching and living in Japan.

To teach English is the primary objective of an EFL teacher. As professionals in our field, we all understand this. It is clearly useful to teach the complexities of grammar, syntax and nuance to older learners, as they have the educational background to understand what it is we are explaining. But this is not true for young EFL learners. The resources available for these students dwindle, and as frustrating as it is, often the final recourse of a new or even experienced teacher is repetitive drilling or flashcards.

Of course, flashcards and drilling are not terrible things, and used in moderation, can be a useful way to introduce and practice vocabulary. With a school like mine, where students come for, at most, one to two hours a week, flashcards have become integral to the reviewing process. However, it is essential to not to let the fact that they are “convenient” lead to overuse. Why? Young learners crave diversity. They want to move, and to take part in activities that engage every sense possible. They want to play!

When I first began working at my small conversation school (otherwise known as an “eikaiwa” in Japan), I was taking over roughly eleven kindergarten classes. My predecessor had left due to a family emergency at the end of the previous school year, so there was no curriculum to follow, and I didn’t have a clue where any of my roughly 60 students were in level. Their ages ranged from three to six years old. As far as I could tell, the only resource the school actually had was hundreds upon hundreds of flashcards that had been laminated and shoved in the desk of the previous instructor. So, I pulled them out and organized them a bit. But, what I found, across the board, was that even the most well-behaved students, who sat properly and listened the whole time I had them chant or repeat the words on the colorful cards, were bored.

I began brainstorming ways to make the classes more entertaining for them. After all, what isn’t fun for me isn’t fun for them. My school is quite small, so anything that I wanted would need to be either paid out of my own pocket or handmade. Eventually, I settled for handmade. The school had lots of craft supplies, as well as a laminator. Also, since I live in Japan, toy stores are often limited to something called chara toys, or character toys. It is almost impossible to find toys that do not have a brand character plastered all over them, so I decided to avoid them completely, not wanting to distract the children with a picture of Pikachu when the point of the class is to learn English.

One of my first projects for the kids was to build a crepe shop out of cardboard and felt. I simply covered an old cardboard box with colorful paper and made a felt burner, with a set of felt yellow “crepes” and laminated slices of fruit for the children to build crepes “to order.” This worked out surprisingly well, and the kids adored it. The situational vocabulary and grammar was simple enough that I could explain it as they played.

I would give each student a handful of money, and use ordinal numbers to tell them what order they would get to go in. “First” always gets to be the first to make the crepes. There is a colorful menu on the front of the box, which students choose their crepes from, and the chef explains out loud what s/he is doing. (ie- “Cook the crepe,” “Add whipped cream,” “Three kiwi” etc.) Customers ask how much the crepe is, the shop owner answers and then waits to be bpaid before saying "Thank you! Come again!" More advanced children are encouraged to use “slices” as well. It has become an activity that completely avoids L1 discussion.

The benefits of the crepe shop were that it had the students, of every level, practicing full conversation with the shop keeper, and using polite language. And the biggest benefit of all: they forgot they were learning. They were just kids, having fun and playing together.

Following the success of the crepe shop, I created another fast food station. This time the food was burgers. I went to an art store to get cork board and spray paint, and made the burger patties out of that. Then I used felt to make the hamburger buns and condiments. I fashioned the stand out of an empty box and found a dollar store for ketchup and mustard containers, as well as a spatula.

This time, the grammar focus of the activity was “Do you want....?” The chef would ask “Do you want tomatoes?” and the customer would reply “Yes, please.” or “No, thank you.” If they said yes, the chef then asked “How many?” The children have mastered this grammar far more quickly than they would have through flashcards! I consistently have my kids running up to me at the beginning of class saying “I want to play burger shop!”

I use it as a reward for good behavior during writing and phonics review. Again, it is an activity that can be played entirely in English. I usually had to make the first burger to show them how it was done, but after that, there were no problems- even with two year olds! For older children, I encourage them to use the counters for the vegetables, like “4 slices of cheese, please.” or “Extra lettuce, please.”

I was determined to turn everything I could into a game or activity that would engage the students on a level they could understand and want to do without prompting. I used colored electric tape to make a hopscotch for the numbers 1-10, 11-20 and another for counting by 10s. This was used as a class warm-up exercise. The children would line up at 1, and go up to 10 (either with my help or on their own once they knew it), then run to the next wall to jump 11-20. Finally, they would hop the 10s hopscotch, where I would stress the difference between how 13 and 30 sounds (and every other “teens” number compared to their 10s counterpart.) My only regret about having to use the electric tape is the residue it left on carpet.

I also used the letters of a foam ABC puzzle to make a lily pad hop to use while the younger children were still learning their ABCs. This was set up during a coloring activity so that they were engaged and not distracted. I would lift the kids in small hops between the puzzle pieces so they couldn’t run the course, until they could sing the alphabet completely on their own. Of course this track can be used for phonics chants and other vocabulary as well, and be any shape the teacher desires it to be. You can even use flashcards to make the track- I just prefer the foam puzzles because they are less slippery and more durable.

I made a felt board with felt face pieces so children could practice all of the different emotions they were supposed to learn. I would have the children start with a blank face, and instruct them to make “happy” or “sad” or “scared." The children when then take variously shaped mouths, noses, eyes, ears and eyebrows to make that emotion. Naturally, their favorite part was when I would tell them to make “silly!” You’ll get all kinds of ridiculous faces that way. If felt is too hard to come by, you could also laminate pieces of a face and have the kids shuffle the pieces around a larger blank head to make the emotions you call out.

Another thing I made was a magnetic fishing game with leveled phonics. I have one envelope of fishes for uppercase letters, one for lowercase, and one for consonant digraphs (ch, th, sh, ph, etc). On the back of the lowercase lettered fish are CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words for children who are a bit more advanced than their peers, and the consonant digraph fish also have related words on their opposite side. I used the same felt board I used for the faces (it’s light blue) to make a sort of pond, and scatter the fish across the board. I found some magnetic fishing poles at a toy store (but you can make them from scratch with magnets, yarn and sticks) and stuck paper clips through all of the fishes’ noses. This was a good activity to use during our phonics review when kids start to get restless with chants or flashcards review. I let each child catch one fish at a time. They could “catch” whatever fish they wanted, as long as they could identify the letter, sound or word. I don't suggest letting all of the children fish at the same time, as you'll have fishing poles getting tangled and other general chaos. This game was even implemented into the elementary level at my school with great success by another teacher.

I even created brand new board games to help the children learn new vocabulary. Below is an example of one of them, Little Red Riding Hood, with one of the vocabulary items from the story in each space. The children roll a die, and rather than count the spaces, say the vocabulary on the space before proceeding (I don’t suggest having them say the vocabulary as they go as they will lose count of the spaces they are allowed to move.) If they land on a flower space, they lose a turn and take one of the laminated flowers from the board, but, if they land on the wolf and have at least one flower, they’re safe. If they don’t have any flowers, they must return all the way back to the woodcutter space (about a third of the way from the beginning of the path), as he was the one that saved Little Red Riding Hood in the story. The children love this and frequently request to play it again and again. Unfortunately, I did have to use some L1 in a few classes to have them understand the rules- but if you have a native speaker teaching assistant or a particularly bright student, it will be easier to explain the rules. One of our other kindergarten teachers had a student’s mother explain the game.

There are innumerable ways a teacher can transform the act of learning into an act of play, and the resources online are numerous. If you get stuck finding new materials, simply look up teaching methods for children your age, rather than EFL techniques. I recently found a host of ideas, like setting up relay races, making a clothing game out of paper dolls and repurposing ABC puzzles for more challenging games by accidentally stumbling onto a random Early Childhood Education podcast on iTunes U, and a website for Girlscouts of America.

There are games that require no props, though props always help, as your students are more likely to remember something when they have held it than through a chant or even a song. The key lies in the teacher’s own imagination and willingness to commit the time. You need not be a great artist- clip art and a printer will do. Simply remember back to your childhood days- what do you remember about your earliest school experience? What did you remember as fun or boring? What did you wish you could have had, or made for yourself, back then? Then, remember that your own children are in a different generation, a different generation with new interests and emotional triggers, and work with that, to engage them in a way they can enjoy and use- in play. If you are feeling short on ideas, visit online forums for help, or browse your local toy store to brainstorm on how you can create something similar for your classes. All of your efforts will pay off- your children will come into your class ready to play… and by play, I mean learn.