I have long thought that sim­ple ges­tures explain more clear­ly to very young chil­dren what response you are expect­ing from them. I got excel­lent feed­back for my dai­ly efforts at the day­care where I work when a 20 month-old, who I con­sid­er one of my ‘res­cue’ babies, sat at a table read­ing a truck book I had giv­en him. He looked over at me, pat­ted the chair next to him and sim­ply said “sit”. He was ask­ing me to sit and read with him!

I have used the same ges­ture with all the chil­dren since they were about 9 months-old (why am I the only one who knows to do that over and over again?) when try­ing to get them to sit and eat or sit beside me when I’m read­ing to them. I usu­al­ly say “Sit Mary” or what­ev­er their name hap­pens to be, and at the same time I align the chair I want them to use and pat the seat of that chair, or pat the rug beside me at read­ing time. So now my res­cue baby tru­ly gets it and he’s the first with that response — after 10 months of facil­i­ty care!

Need­less to say, in Feb­ru­ary 2009 the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go released the results of research indi­cat­ing that ges­tures used with tod­dlers often results in those chil­dren hav­ing a much larg­er vocab­u­lary at age 5. And here I thought it was just me! How­ev­er, the research also makes ref­er­ence to ‘high socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus’ being a fac­tor in fam­i­lies that use more gesturing.

I ven­ture to sug­gest that socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus has less influ­ence now that the major­i­ty of very young chil­dren are left in full time care with indi­vid­u­als who have very lit­tle expe­ri­ence in car­ing for that age group and also are very poor­ly paid. Mon­ey or par­ents’ income now has noth­ing to do with ges­tur­ing as part of com­mu­ni­ca­tion; nei­ther does the cost of the day­care programme.

What affects the devel­op­ment of tod­dler vocab­u­lary is the full time, con­sis­tent, depend­able care of a lov­ing and knowl­edge­able care­giv­er – the age of the care­giv­er doesn’t mat­ter, but expe­ri­ence does.

Long ago I remem­ber observ­ing a friend casu­al­ly point­ing out some­thing to her daugh­ter (then about 14 months of age) and think­ing at the time that her daugh­ter’s line of sight was­n’t even close to where the moth­er was point­ing and thus the child saw noth­ing. The words and ges­ture were wast­ed because the moth­er was unaware of what her child could or could not actu­al­ly see. Should I also men­tion that the child lat­er had mul­ti­ple step­fa­thers, sev­er­al ear­ly care and teenage trau­mat­ic care sit­u­a­tions and has had tremen­dous emo­tion­al prob­lems into her adult life? What else did her moth­er miss?

As a mat­ter of course I always drop to the eye lev­el of any child I’m with, or pick them up to my eye lev­el, BEFORE I point some­thing out to them. I also align my fin­ger to their eye­sight and the object (a ges­ture) and it only takes a minute of obser­va­tion to recog­nise that the child under­stands what I’m say­ing and point­ing to — oh, that’s also joint attention! 

At which point it’s also inter­est­ing to say “Can you say…‘bird’?” (or the name of the object) — a child mak­ing excel­lent progress will attempt to say the one, two or three syl­la­ble word you give them, some chil­dren will just par­rot your whole ques­tion and some won’t have a clue as to what you’re ask­ing of them and make no response (many of those are over 2 years old! Do we then refer them for ther­a­py to resolve the ‘delay’?)

My ‘res­cue’ baby has also rec­og­nized (ges­tured) that a dish­wash­er has a ‘propeller’/blades that make it work, so his moth­er told me! She told him “No, the dish­wash­er isn’t a heli­copter”! But she got the con­nec­tion (her joint atten­tion means she is on his wave­length) and he obvi­ous­ly has made the con­nec­tion between the action, the ‘ges­ture’ if you will, of a heli­copter blade and the impeller in a dish­wash­er. Albeit a con­nec­tion that’s hard for most adults and par­ents to comprehend.

Where his brain will go I don’t know but I do know that the child already has a fine­ly func­tion­ing brain, a long atten­tion span, under­stands that ges­tures (and words) have pow­er and I’m hap­py that his par­ents recog­nise his poten­tial. With the right atten­tion at school — mine! — I hope he will be OK in the future. I’m the only staff mem­ber who was alert to his strange hand flap­ping at 9 months, to every­one else he was just strange but ‘easy’ to man­age (he rarely cried) and was there­fore neglect­ed by all oth­er staff. He has been in an oth­er­wise mediocre day­care facil­i­ty, mer­ci­ful­ly only two days a week, and thank­ful­ly I’ve been able to watch over him.

I think his par­ents will con­tin­ue their warm, lov­ing and close (ges­tures!) obser­va­tions of their son and hope­ful­ly he won’t lose ground when either of us moves on.