People in cultures all over the world use gestures when speaking, which has spawned psychologists, sociologists and cognitive scientists alike to question gestures as they relate to language and cognitive development. Even toddlers use gestures as an effective communication device to get their point across. Adding hand movements to speech often makes meanings more understandable and aids children in the learning process.
Many parents are under the misconception that sign language or early gesturing will stunt their children’s development of speech, but this idea is a fallacy. Benefits of early sign language include increased attention, child and parent bonding, and reduced fussiness, according to research presented by The Psychologist, an online journal by The British Psychological Society. Gestures are used to communicate, and when children understand what gestures mean and how to use them, they are able to say what they want while developing their cognitive skills at the same time. Toddlers often use sign language to reinforce this learning.
Gesturing is a stepping stone to speech and a part of pre-language learning. Research studies, such as those conducted by Linda Acredolo (1999) and Susan Goodwyn (2000), as well as The University of Chicago study “Children’s Early Gestures Have Important Link to School Preparedness” (published in Science magazine in 2009), support the idea that children who gesture more learn words quicker, have larger vocabularies, and are better ready to start preschool. When parents and children use gestures, they take advantage of teachable moments. When a child points to a doll when a parent asks what she wants, the parent can then point to the doll and say “this is a doll,” which not only uses the hand motion but also teaches new vocabulary.
Memory and Learning
The use of gestures also frees up working memory, which is the ability to recall information over a short period of time. Studies like Dr. Gwen Dewar’s “The Science of Gestures: Why It’s Good For Kids to Talk With Their Hands” suggest that gesturing and speech both use less working memory than speech alone. Stevanoni and Salmon’s study from the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior in 2005 shows that children who use gestures while talking also recall more facts from the events they describe.
Special Needs Children
Gesturing is an important tool for typically-developing children as well as those individuals with special needs. When both parents and children use gestures, they find a common ground for communication, which often results in less frustration. If even for just a short period of time, gesturing bypasses the need for the motor or cognitive skills needed for speech. You can use hand movements and even tactile gestures as reinforcement.
Gestures might begin as a way for parents and children to communicate what they want, and it eventually helps develop language and cognitive skills. Gestures can also give parents a sense of how their children feel. Fast pointing, for example, implies a sense of urgency or excitement. The use of hand movements early in childhood also helps strengthen the parent/child bond, enabling more effective communication between them.