Updated: Feb 7, 2020
A favourite game of ours has always been 'The Minister's Cat' where you have to describe the cat in a variety of ways, working your way through the alphabet. Over the years, as our daughter's vocabulary has increased, we have gone from the rather boring adjectives such as 'big' or 'beautiful' to far more interesting ones such as 'gnarled' or 'pestiferous'. That poor feline has kept us all entertained during many a long car journey.
It occurred to us, though, that you wouldn't need to limit this to a cat or even to adjectives. Combining it with I-Spy would make it a good way to work on your children's Observation skills and general knowledge as much as their vocabulary. Let's transplant the activity to a woodland walk and see what happens...
Note: We've put a print-and-go version of this blog on our resources page. It lists the activities, with a short description of each, so you can take them with you on your walk.
"[insert your own environment's name here] has..." taking it in turns to add a noun in alphabetical order. You can each find a thing of that letter, or an easier version would be to find just one item for each letter before moving on to the next one. So you'd have something like "The Ayot Wood has an acorn, bark, a (pine) cone, a dandelion, an earthworm, a feather, grass etc." What makes it more than just a word game, though, is that players have to find that item in the environment around them. They have to be able to point to an acorn or an earthworm. There is no limit on the type of word they use - it can be very general e.g. bark, or a specific type of tree or plant. It can also be something that would move (e.g. a bird) rather than be static, but it has to be pointed out while still in sight.
This is the same game as above, but instead of relying on generic nouns such a 'tree' or 'leaf', players have to be very specific. They could replace 'bark' (generic) with other 'b' words such as 'bluebell' or 'beech tree', which are more specific. They could even use the proper Latin name if they knew it. If your/their knowledge of woodland plants or trees isn't great, then why not do it as a group activity rather than as a game or competition? Look up a plant/tree for each letter in a nature book or an online list and give a point to the person who can first spot it in the woodland around you. [Our resources page also has some alphabetic lists of suggestions to get you started and we've got some suggestions of independent websites in the next variant].
This is a variation on the Premium stage, but players have to limit their noun choice to a specific type of object - so they would use only trees (ash, beech, copper beech), or flowers (aconite, bluebell, campion) or birds (avocet, blackbird, crow). This can be very advanced/difficult, depending on their existing knowledge but if it's done collaboratively it would be a good way for them to learn new words in context (which will make it easier for them to remember than just reading from a list). The types of trees/plants/birds would obviously vary hugely depending on the season and the terrain (so you're unlikely to get an avocet in a wood, for instance, but might see one if you're doing a coastal walk of some sort). The Woodland Trust has a list of native trees that you could use as does the Countryside Info site. The Woodland Trust also has reference pages on other plants and fungi. The site Plantlife has one, too. The latter website also has spotter sheets to practise your Observations skills further, suitable for different times of year, while the RSPB has an A-Z list if it's birds you want to look out for. If players want the challenge of playing independently, you could always add a scoring system (3 points for getting a noun of that type without help, 2 points if someone helps them, 1 point if they can't find anything from that category for that particular letter and pick a noun of that letter from a different type). Who will earn most points over the course of the walk?
This can be based on any of the Noun-tastic variants, depending on the age/ability of the child(ren) concerned. This time they have to find a relevant object (e.g. plant/tree/wildlife) in the area around them for each letter of the alphabet (using basic words or specific types, depending on what you agree with them beforehand), which they then have to describe. To make the most of this exercise, and enhance their observation skills, the adjective should provide a good description of that particular object rather than just be a random adjective: "The Ayot Wood has a tiny acorn, withered branch, yellow catkins etc.".
Alliterative Add Adj
This is where you take the previous activity and make it harder by getting players to practise the pesky poetry technique they'll have to do at school. The noun and adjective must start with the same letter of the alphabet each time so you would now get something like: "The Ayot Wood has ancient ash trees, beautiful brambles, curly catkins, damp dells etc.". Ideally, it should still be an appropriate adjective for the item they are describing and can point out (so 'dell' could be 'dry' in a period of hot weather rather than 'damp'). As well as a great way to enhance their vocabulary, it makes them scour the environment for 'good' or 'unusual' things to use, making it a far more challenging Observation activity - which is thus far more likely to engage their interest. Could they add more than one adjective of the same letter (or could others join in with further words)? Give bonus points for particularly interesting objects, great adjectives or the number of adjectives they can find starting with the same letter.
Okay, you've mastered the nouns and adjectives versions and aced alliteration, so what do you do next? Easy, you make the noun and adjective choices into a series to enhance players' vocabulary and knowledge of the environment even further! You're still working your way through the alphabet, noun by noun, but this time the adjective has to be the letter before or the letter after the noun. Or both, if you want to make it harder still. If you are using more than one adjective, you can make it into a sentence, if you/they find that is easier. So, you start getting things like '"The Ayot Wood has amber beech (leaves) that are curved or amber curved beech (leaves)". The participants still have to be able to show the item, and the vocabulary has to be relevant. You can make this stage collaborative - for instance, one child comes up with the noun, while another comes up with the adjective(s). If there is a group of you, you could see how many adjectives you could add on each side of the noun, in terms of alphabetic series - so you start by doing the letter in front of the noun, then the one after, then the one two letters before the noun and two after, three letters before etc. Obviously, the start of the alphabet could be problematic for letters 'before' - but you could start at the end of the alphabet and work backwards so you have a 'zig-zagged ash (leaf) that is also brown', 'young, zig-zagged ash (leaf) that is also brown and curved'.
Suitcase in the Woods
If you find the stages above aren't challenging enough, why not practise some of their newly-learned memory techniques (e.g. Number Shapes, Number Rhymes, or Memory Palaces) to try to remember all the items that have been selected, and the words you chose to describe them, making it a version of Suitcase in the Woods.
We've used a woodland walk for our examples here, but you could just as easily do the activities when walking round a park or gardens or, indeed, along a city or suburban street. You could equally go back to our original location: the car. Enliven a car journey with these more complex versions of a game you've played before. They will have to be quick to describe what they've seen, though, for the Observation to count. Do let us know how you get on.