Early Literacy Activities for Kids on the Go

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: miniseries, E+ Collection/Getty Images

Returning to mostly normal post-pandemic life means I have at least one of my kids tagging along everywhere I go. The shortage of the coveted “steering wheel carts” at the grocery store suggests I’m not alone. Tackling your to-do list with kids in tow can be challenging, but it’s helpful to remember that organic learning can happen while running errands. Here are a few strategies for squeezing in some learning while roaming store aisles, waiting in line, or buzzing from place to place with your tiny helpers.

Errands are language goldmines for babies and toddlers

Babies learn to talk from their language interactions with others. Day-to-day activities are the perfect setting for this.

Talk it up!

Once you get past the age when you hope your baby will sleep through all your errands, take a cue from brain development research and start talking. “Serve and return interactions,” or back-and-forth “conversations” with babies and toddlers, help lay an oral language foundation that becomes the backbone of literacy learning. So, discuss the weather with your little one, muse about what to make for dinner, or ask for their “help” to remember to double back to the cereal aisle.

Sing along

Besides being enjoyable, songs and rhymes are ideal for distracting little ones during errands and building their phonological awareness. (“Sing to the baby” is an excellent task to assign to an older child to pass the time.) If you need inspiration, check out this list of sing-along stories.

Preschoolers love routines and rituals

Familiar routines and rituals can engage preschoolers during errands and encourage learning. You might try making it a habit to:

Tell the story of the errand

When kids retell stories they’ve read, or write their own stories in elementary school, teachers often ask them to “tell it across your hand.” You can practice sequencing and storytelling skills by giving kids a preview of what will happen first, next, etc., on the errand while holding up each finger. For example, “First, we’ll drive past the construction site. Then, we’ll park at the bank. Then, we’ll go in and talk to the worker. Then, I’ll push the buttons on the machine, and last, the worker will give me my money for my wallet.” Repeat, repeat, repeat.

For favorite, extra-special errands, snap photos of each “step” and save them to an album on your phone. Kids can relive and retell the experience later. It’s a preschool version of an Instagram Story!

Bring a book

Browsing and chatting about any book from the seat of a shopping cart is always a worthwhile activity for a toddler. It’s especially fun to bring a title that relates to your errand. There are many choices, but we’re partial to the classic characters in Spot Goes Shopping by Eric Hill or Maisy Goes Shopping by Lucy Cousins.

Go on a _____ hunt

Preschoolers adore seek-and-find games, and there are many ways to fit this into your errands. You can endlessly vary “I Spy” to spot something red/striped/fuzzy, etc., to encourage concept and vocabulary development. You can also spy something that “starts with the /ssss/ sound” or “rhymes with log” to get kids thinking about sounds in words. (A silly variation is to say a nonsense word for the rhyming clue, as in, “I spy something that rhymes with zescalator!”). Or, make it a scavenger hunt that lasts for an entire excursion with challenges like, “How many letter A’s can we spot?” or “How many things with wheels can we see?”

BYO List

I always have a list with me, and now my daughter feels it’s essential that she has one too. A mini-clipboard and pencil live in our car just for this purpose. Two- and three-year-olds might be satisfied by making a list of scribbles or drawing their own “checkmarks.” For older preschoolers, you can draw pictures of a few grocery items or write the first letter for them to cross off. All this mark-making encourages the exploration of early writing concepts and keeps kids happy while you work through your grown-up list.

Background knowledge is essential for literacy

There’s a lot of talk about how phonics knowledge helps kids read, and it’s warranted. However, depth and breadth of background and vocabulary knowledge play just as crucial a role in kids’ literacy success. As kids learn about the world and gather words to talk about it, they create rich mental files. Later, they can access these mental files to help figure out words in books, make sense of what they read, and store new information. This goes for high-interest topics, like the solar system or rainforest animals. It’s also true for learning what happens during an automobile inspection, foods you might buy at a bakery, or what you do at the recycling center. Just being out in the world while talking with adults is irreplaceable for building up kids’ funds of knowledge — no gimmicks or games needed.