Because gesturing communicates information that’s not being spoken, paying attention to the gestures your children make can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside their minds.
For example, research shows that there are multiple points during childhood where major language development milestones are immediately preceded by predictable signals in children’s gesturing. To put it another way: your children’s gestures develop before their words.
So as a parent, observing what your child is doing with her hands not only gives you extra information about what she’s talking about now, but it can also tell you what she’s likely to learn in the near future.
Watch your child’s gestures for the following major language development milestones:
- First words: The objects of kids’ early gestures often become their first words. So pay attention to the things your child points at, reaches with an open hand toward, extends out to show you, or the like—because the objects of those gestures will likely be the words you’ll soon hear from her mouth. Before she ever says “Mama,” you better believe your baby will be reaching Mama’s way!
- Early vocabulary size: Pay attention to how many things your child gestures toward. Does she tend to point to just a couple of objects, like her bottle and her blankey? Or does she gesture at lots of things, like her bottle, her blankey, the ceiling fan, doorknobs, pieces of furniture, passing cars, friends, family and the cat? Since the objects of children’s gestures tend to be their first words, kids who gesture at more objects tend to have larger vocabularies early on.
- First sentences: Before kids learn to combine multiple words into sentences, they’ll combine a word with a gesture to achieve the same effect. For example, a child who says the word “book” while simultaneously shoving a book in your face is very effectively telling you he’d like you to read him that book. And once your little one masters this new level of communication, multiword sentences like “Read book” and “Daddy read book” won’t be too far behind.
Since gestures develop before speech from the very beginning, you can even use them to communicate with your not-yet-verbal baby! Teach her simple signs for common objects and phrases (like “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “milk,” “ball,” “more,” “all gone” or “sleep”). Use actual American Sign Language (ASL) signs or your own made-up ones—as long as you always use the same sign to mean the word, your kid should get the message. When your child begins to talk, she’ll naturally ditch the signs in favor of spoken words. And since kids who use baby sign tend to start talking faster, it won’t take long!
Perform Your Own Gestures
Even though kids’ body language can tell you a lot about their development, don’t think that gesturing is merely child’s play. In fact, increasing the number of gestures that you use can lead to increased communication skills for your child.
Numerous research studies have shown that parents who gesture more have kids with larger vocabularies. Here’s why:
- Gestures focus your child‘s attention. Imagine that you’re reading a book with your child and you tell him the new word “rabbit.” There are many things that word might refer to—the rabbit, some aspect of the rabbit (like color), another character, or even the book itself. By gesturing toward the rabbit as you say the word, you narrow the scope of what the word might mean and help your child learn it.
- The more you gesture, the more your child gestures. And as we already discovered, the number of gestures your child makes predicts the size of his early vocabulary. So more gesturing can lead to more talking, more quickly.
- The more your child gestures, the more you talk. When your child reaches for something—like a ball—what happens? You probably say something about it, like, “Ball? You want the ball? Yes, that’s a blue ball. I can get you the blue ball. And look! This ball bounces! Look how high we can bounce the ball! Oh no, the blue ball just landed in the potty. Bye bye, blue ball!” So with one simple gesture toward an object, your child got you to talk (and talk and talk) to him about it. And hearing all those words was a boon to his language acquisition abilities.
So if you want to strengthen your young child’s vocabulary, try to incorporate gestures whenever possible. Point to objects that you’re talking about, pantomime actions when you’re discussing verbs, and sing songs that use fun hand and body movements.
And while you and your child are making all those brain-boosting, vocabulary-building gestures, throw in a celebratory fist pump for yourself. You’ve earned it.
Got some ideas for incorporating more gestures into everyday play? Share how your family uses gesture in the comments!