Welcoming visitors to group time is a delightful way to build language skills, and this time of the year is perfect for inviting family, friends, and community members to your classroom to share their knowledge and experiences. Visitors bring their own special interests and cultural traditions that broaden the scope of children's experience and understanding. Along with the visitors come new vocabulary words and phrases for children to explore, sometimes even learning words in a new language. Some teachers are wary of inviting guests for fear that children will get too excited or that the visitor will not hold children's interest. But with thoughtful preparation, you can create a memorable encounter that is fun, interesting, skill building, and language-rich.

Preparing the Visitor

The "conversation starters" are numerous when visitors know how to communicate with a group of young children. Just because someone is an expert on something like animals or his culture does not mean he knows how to talk about these topics with young children. The trick is to discuss ahead of time the needs and interest of the children and the best ways for the visitor to share his knowledge. Here are a few guidelines to share with visitors before they come to class:

  • Keep the discussion short.
  • Bring props or pictures for children to see and touch. Remind them that young children listen best when there is something to look at.
  • Children are fascinated by other cultures. Invite visitors to wear their traditional dress, and to bring in toys, photos, tools, foods and recipes from their family's culture.
  • Ask simple, open-ended questions that engage children in conversations instead of talking "at them." "What do you think I do with this piece of equipment?" and "How do you think I got to school long ago?" are examples of such open-ended questions.
  • Come early so children can meet you before group time and stay late (if possible) so the activity can move beyond group time into other learning centers.

Preparing Children

You can get the most out of your group-- time visits if you prepare children in advance. Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk with children about possible classroom visitors. Make an experience chart of children's preferences and suggestions. After you have scheduled a visit, talk with children about who is coming and when the visitor will arrive (mark the date together on the class calendar).
  • After discussing with children what the visitor does or what she will bring, invite children to ask questions and make predictions about the visitor. This is a wonderful way to talk about any fears or stereotypes. One kindergarten group invited a zookeeper They predicted it would be a man in a green suit who would bring a bear, when actually the visitor was a woman in jeans with snakes, lizards, and an owl!
  • Talk about respect and behavior before the visitor comes. Be clear about your expectations for good turn taking, sharing, listening and sitting.
  • Create a cheery atmosphere for the visit. Children can decorate and prepare the group meeting space for the visitor. Children delight in preparing greeting cards and gifts for the visitor ahead of time. These mark the "specialness" of the event in the children's minds.

When the guest arrives, sing your best hello song! Children may like to reinvent the words to their favorite song to fit their guest. Encourage children to ask questions. You may need to intercede for them if they become shy, but just a nod and some good question modeling should get them going. If new words are introduced (particularly if they are in a new language), write these on a chart and add simple rebus pictures to illustrate the words. Children can refer to this later in the writing center when they write in their journals or create thank-you notes and letters to the visitor.

Often a visitor will spark interests that can carry over to activity time. Invite the visitor to stay so children can talk more informally with him or her. If the person has shared a skill, such as cooking a cultural food or creating an ethnic art piece, perhaps she can work with children on a related project. If this is not possible on the day of the visit, try to arrange for a return visit that will allow for more smallgroup interactions.