Even if you live in a city or the suburbs, miles from the nearest grazing cow, your young child has probably seen or heard about farm animals. Perhaps you’ve sung “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” or read a story featuring sheep, ducks, and horses. It may sound like simple toddler fun, but learning this vocabulary at a young age actually helps your child develop savvy pre-academic and social skills.
“When we teach children farm animal words and noises, we’re not only teaching them about the many sounds we make in the English language, but also about our culture and the world,” says Adiaha I. A. Franklin, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital.
In fact, farm animals have been a go-to teaching tool in children’s books for centuries. In 1658, John Amos Comenius published what’s considered the world’s first children’s book, Orbis Pictus. It includes illustrations of various farm animals, with text such as “the duck quaketh” and “the lamb blaiteth.”
While nobody expects your toddler to utter quaketh, there are real benefits of teaching him the modern-day vocabulary. Start early: You’ll find that your kid knows quite a bit by the time he’s 3 years old, and learning farm animal vocabulary only further prepares him for preschool and beyond. That being said, there’s no perfect age to perfect a skill, and if your child can’t list all of the farm animals quite yet, simply seeing them in books and hearing their names and sounds will still provide him with a valuable foundation. Here are five surprising benefits of teaching farm animal vocabulary to young toddlers.
It teaches her how to pronounce other words.
Many farm animal words — think “pig” or “duck” or “turkey” — feature consonants pronounced at the front of the mouth, making them more easily detectable to children. “These sounds are simple for children to learn because they connect different senses, including touch and sight,” says Lee Scott, an education and curriculum specialist and chair of The Goddard School Educational Advisory Board. Consider, for instance, how your toddler can see you bring your lips together when you say those words out loud.
“Farm animal words also provide an opportunity for babies and toddlers to practice the many sounds we use in English,” says Franklin. That’s because words like “Moo!” and “Chirp!” use a wide variety of phonemes, or the sound a letter or group of letters make in a word — language building blocks that prepare your child to speak, read, and write.
And embrace the baby talk: Phrases like “A piggy goes oink oink!” actually help your child learn new words. A University of Edinburgh study found that toddlers who heard diminutive words ending in a ‘y’ sound (such as “piggy” or “ducky”) and words that repeat sounds (like “oink oink” or “quack quack”) developed larger vocabularies between 9 and 21 months of age.
Book pick: Noisy Farm: My First Sound Book. Bring farm animals to life with this internationally bestselling book! Each spread has a button that triggers one of six engaging animal sounds to help your child pair farm animals with their unique noises.
It creates building blocks for sentences.
Once your child learns simple farm animal words, he’ll start connecting them together or with other words to create meaning. Combos like “cow moo” may sound simple, but they are actually the beginnings of sentences.
“Young toddlers between 1 ½ and 2 years of age who know around 20 words might start combining words like this,” says Scott. “It’s easy to do with farm animal words because they’re fun and engaging. They capture the attention of a child much more easily than regular, inanimate objects like a table or a chair.”
Expose your child to a mix of nouns and verbs to help these connections take place. By learning them early on, he’ll be able to understand and follow simple directions later on in school, such as “hop like a bunny” or “run like a pony.”
Book pick: A Squash and a Squeeze. In this charming story adapted from a classic folktale, a wise old man gives a little lady strange advice to make her tiny house seem bigger. With his short instructions to bring farm animals inside, your child will hear how words come together to create sentences and commands.
It primes her for categorizing skills.
By age 3, your child starts to spontaneously categorize objects in her world, says Franklin. She may start to group both white and brown horses into a “horse” category, or big and small dogs into a “dog” category. Before this point, however, she needs to learn the words that define those categories.
Encourage this language developmental milestone by pointing out farm animals in real life (luckily, you don’t need to live by a farm to do so!). If you’re at the supermarket and spot a magazine with a horse, talk about the sounds horses make. At a petting zoo, point out the goat and talk about what it eats and how soft its coat feels. “Doing so builds children’s vocabulary and helps them have an expanded view of what an animal is,” says Franklin.
Book pick: Ten Pigs. Not all animals of a kind look the same, but they may share common characteristics — like pink, curly tails and a love for baths! In this hilarious tale, a pig with swimming trunks, a pig with a pirate flag, and many more unique pigs take part in an epic bath adventure that teaches categorizing and counting skills.
It prepares him for social skills needed for school.
Not only can farm animal vocabulary boost your child’s ability to build and understand instructions, but surprisingly, it could help him express his emotions when words can’t. If a child doesn’t know enough vocabulary to talk about how he’s frustrated, but knows that a dog growls or a cow lets out a shrill “moo!” when upset, he may communicate his feelings in those ways. “I see this especially in 2-year-old and 3-year-old classrooms,” says Scott. “It can be a more appropriate way for children to express themselves than flinging a toy across the room.”
Farm animal vocabulary also naturally lends itself well to interactive activities, including books, games, and songs. When you and your child alternate saying “cluck cluck!” during story time or listen to a rhyme like “Little Bo-Beep,” he is subtly learning how to communicate, take turns, and imitate. “Those things play an important role in early academic skill-building,” says Franklin.
Book pick: Old MacDonald Had a Farm.Take turns saying the exuberant animal noises in this beloved American anthem with your child! Young children will love following nimble-footed Farmer as he greets each of his farm animals during a morning jaunt, and beckons an array of vocal sheep, cows, pigs, and other animals to join him.
It teaches her early life lessons.
By engaging children in stories about farm animals, you’re teaching them how to love and care about the creatures in our world. “It builds upon their natural curiosity to help them understand that animals also need to be warm, fed, and cared for, and that also translates into caring about others,” says Scott. “It builds empathy, something that can begin at a very young age.” In fact, this is a particularly important time to share these lessons — research shows that the second year of life is the most critical period for the development of empathy.
Book pick: Giggle, Giggle, Quack. Shift your child’s perspective to see things from a farm animal’s point of view in this giggle-worthy tale. When Farmer Brown takes a vacation and leaves his brother in charge, Duck rewrites the instructions for the animals’ care. Soon, all of the farm animals are living a life of luxury!