People all over the world, from different backgrounds and cultures use hand gestures when they speak. Hand movements are so natural and prevalent among cultures that researchers from different fields, like linguistics and neuroscience, have studied gestures to look for insights about language development. It might seem funny to think that gestures are important for language development, but just imagine this scene for a second: trying to explain to your kids how to tie their shoelaces or how tall a building is in comparison to another without using hand gestures. It would be pretty difficult, wouldn’t it? It’s such a simple action, but so hard to explain without moving your hands.

Hand gestures are part of the way we communicate, especially with children, and it’s how they develop their language skills. Children use their hands to communicate with others very early on. They point to the things they want. They know what they want to say, but they can’t say it with words yet.

Researchers Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow are two leading experts in the topic of children’s hand gestures and language development. They examined why some toddlers seemed to understand language earlier than others. In their study they found that toddlers who gestured more, scored on average 26% higher in language tests than other children! By learning to gesture, toddlers pick up new words faster because it encourages parents to name the objects they are pointing at –thus reinforcing the use of the word. For example, if a child points at a car, the parent might repeat the word ‘car’ a few times, potentially boosting the child’s chances of remembering the word. You may wonder, why is learning new words important? Well, it turns out that vocabulary is a key predictor of school success, so by encouraging your baby or toddler to use hand gestures you can improve her vocabulary and boost her chances of doing well at school in the future!

“Now we know that pointing to objects gives children a chance to practice communicating nonverbally before they are able to do so with words”, Rowe says. “Pointing can also serve as a means for children to acquire information, in that children’s pointing often elicits a verbal response, or label, from a parent”.

So what advice does Rowe have for parents who want to help build their children’s vocabulary by pointing more?

“As a parent myself, I understand it’s natural to be concerned about your children’s language development”, she says. “The key is to realize that you can make a big difference. Pointing often and at a variety of objects can have a dramatic short-term and long-term impact on language development. “As you can see, promoting the use of gestures in your baby or toddler can help with her language development”. If you want to foster the use of gestures, here are a few things you can do:

  • While you are walking around your house, point out and label objects with your toddler. Do the same everywhere that you go, for example: at the park, the grocery store, and in the car.
  • Play pointing games –for example, point to some body parts while repeating the names out loud.
  • When reading, ask your child: “What is this?” and encourage naming and pointing to objects in the book.
  • When your child points, make sure you get excited about whatever it is she is pointing to! Give lots of attention to the pointing. It will provide positive reinforcement causing more pointing.

Here’s a Kinedu activity to get you started in the pointing game with your little one:

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