Take letter learning outdoors with this fun series of hands on alphabet games.
It can feel more than a little worrying when your five year old is completely uninterested in learning letters, or when practising sight words or spelling is an ongoing struggle with your six year old – after all, your neighbour’s granddaughter is only three and knows all of her letters, or your best friend’s four year old is reading whole books!
As with every area of child development, some children will learn to read earlier, with seemingly less effort than others. Most of our children, with our support, will get there – in their own time. However, one mistake I have seen parents and educators make is jumping too quickly into relying upon paper-based literacy activities for teaching early literacy skills to young children. Expecting your child to sit passively and parrot sounds or words as you flash an alphabet flashcard at them or point to the next word on the same sight word list they’ve been struggling to recall all week, makes literacy learning a whole lot more difficult than it needs to be. In my experience, young children respond much more positively to fun, engaging, hands on activities that involve them in doing, problem solving, moving or exploring, instead of learning passively. And this goes for learning about letters, or sight word, or anything really!
In this post you’ll find 9 fun and engaging, hands on alphabet games that are perfect for pre-readers and early readers. They’ll help your child learn alphabet names or sounds or sight words, using one simple-to-make resource – alphabet stones.
Why Alphabet Stones?
Being outside, picking flowers from the garden and playing in our mud kitchen, is just about ALL my daughter wants to do now. It’s great! However, I am mindful that she is starting full-time school next year and that I could be helping her with the transition to a more formal school environment by finding enjoyable activities that require her to sustain attention on a task. With this goal in mind, I set out to create an outdoor alphabet game that would also support letter recognition – a set of alphabet stones for some alphabet games seemed the perfect place to start.
How can I make learning fun + increase attention? Head outdoors!
Developing recognition of individual letters is about much more than learning to recite the alphabet. My daughter knows how to sing the alphabet song but this is merely rote rehearsal of song lyrics though repetition and memorization. What I wanted to focus on during this outdoor activity was actual recognition of individual letters. I knew the stones would help to engage my child’s interest in letters and help with her letter recognition, a key step in the development of being able to read.
Of course, alphabet stones can be used for many different aspects of literacy learners with pre- and early readers…but we’ll get to those in just a moment. Let’s get these stones made first!
How to Make Alphabet Stones
You will need:
- Small, smooth rocks, stones or pebbles (light coloured stones are best)
- Permanent marker pens or paint markers
- Mod Podge sealant, or varnish spray
- A suitable carry bag
These are super quick and easy to make. Simply write each letter of the alphabet on a stone with a permanent marker and then seal it with mod podge. Leave them overnight to harden and dry. Be aware that although the varnish will help seal and protect the letters from rubbing off, it doesn’t make them waterproof or scratch proof.
Depending upon which activities you will use your stones for, you might like to make some extra vowel stones and those for common letters, or duplicates if your child has multiples of the same letter in their own name.
9 Hands On Alphabet Games with Alphabet Stones
The hands on alphabet games on this list become increasingly more difficult as you move through the list. The early ideas are great for pre-readers who are learning to identify their name or beginning to name individual letters, while those at the end of the list work best with early readers with some alphabet/beginning word knowledge.
1. Find your name: Starting with personally significant letters makes the learning experience more meaningful for your child. Hide the letters of your child’s name around the garden and ask them to head off on a hunt to find them. Once they have found them all, invite your child to help you lay them out in order and then sing the letters and their name to a little tune.
Once they have mastered the identity and order of their own name alphabet stones, you can also add some other personally significant letters, for example, /d/ for Dad, /m/ for Mum or /n/ for Nan.
2. A letter hunt: Hide the alphabet stones around the garden. Give your child the carry bag and set them off on a mission to find the letters. When they find a letter, ask what the letter is, or say the letter name to them. You might say, “You’ve found the letter s, it likes to make a sss sound in words.”
Top tip: Depending on your child’s age, ability and interest you might start with just a small collection of letters. Many teachers start off with the letters S A T P I N as from these six letters (or rather, the sounds they make) you can form many first ‘sound out’ words – such as it, in, at. As your child masters this smaller collection of letters, add two or three more at a time to extend the learning experience. You might continue to add your letters in this order – M D G O C K E R U B H F L J W V X Y Z Q.
3. Order the Alphabet stones: Once your child is up to finding all 26 stones you can work together to place them in alphabetical order. It may be beneficial to have them look at the letter, listen to you say the letter name and them ask them to repeat the letter back to you, to engage visual, auditory and verbal learning. Sing the alphabet song together as a reward for putting your stones in order.
4. Play ‘I’m Thinking of a Letter…’: Without your child seeing, choose one alphabet stone and hide it in the palm of your hand. Invite your child to guess which letter you are holding by saying, “I’m thinking of a letter that I hear at the beginning of the word ___.” For example, if you are holding the letter h, you might say hen. Check if their response is correct by showing them the stone in your hand.
5. Letter Jump: Create a path of letter stones along the grass or paving, each placed a small step apart. Invite your child to jump from letter to letter, saying each letter name (or letter sound) aloud as they jump over it. You can try all different sorts of jumps too. Start with two footed kangaroo jumps, then move onto squatting frog jumps or try one-footed hops. For children who are learning to read sight words, arrange letters as individual words to read aloud as they are jumped over.
6. Match lower to upper case letters: Using two sets of letter stones, one with upper case and one with lower case letters, use the letters in a matching game. Ask your child to find the lowercase t and match it to the uppercase T. Again, start with a smaller collection of matching letters and add to them over time
7. Initial letter sounds: Place the stones around the garden in purposeful places. For instance, place T under a table, place P on a path, place F next to a flower and so on. Then say to your child “What letter (or sound) does table start with? Can you find it for me under a table…” or “Can you find the letter P? I’ll give you a clue, it is on something starting with P.” This will continue to build knowledge of individual letter names and the sounds they make.
8. Sight word hunt: Hide the letters around your garden again but this time arrange them as individual words (example shown below). Invite your child to find and read each word. Once all of the words have been found, have your child stand in the middle of your outdoor space. Call out a word and have them race to where that word was hidden and say it aloud.
9. Making words: If your child has a good knowledge of the individual letter names and sounds, and is at the stage of making simple CVC words (CVC words are made up of a consonant, vowel and consonant, like cup or dog), or if they are learning sight words, invite them to use the stones to find the correct letters to make individual words. You might ask your child to make a particular word or set them a challenge to make five CVC words/five three letter words.
Other Outdoor Alphabet Games & Activities to Explore
- Try using mud as paint to practise writing your child’s name or the letters of the alphabet.
- When your playdough has had its day, take it outside. Roll snakes to form letters, challenging your child to form all of the letters of his name, or of the alphabet. See our playdough outdoor play.
- Try kinetic sand alphabet stamping.
- Make an alphabet water play park.
- 50 Playful Sight Word Learning Ideas