Children Use Gesture Body Language To Communicate
Jenny Galvao

Research carried out by Tanya Benhe of the University of Göttingen and associates has shown that children as young as 27 months old are able to display appropriate iconic gestures in order to convey information.

Children at a very young age are able to rely on appropriate gestures (including gestures as basic as pointing) in order to communicate information. However, children performed significantly better when the task required them to point as opposed to when they were asked to make a more complex gesture.

“Given the right circumstances, 2-year-old children are able to use spontaneous, nonconventional gestures that seem to be created on the spot to convey meaning. Specifically, when they were confronted with someone who needed help regarding how to operate an apparatus, they spontaneously produced iconic gestures that showed the other what action she needed to perform,” the researchers explain.

In the first study, the participants were male and female 27 month old children. They were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: either the communicative condition, or the control condition. They were given a chance to explain to a puppet how to operate certain things they knew how to use, and that the puppet was struggling to use. In the control condition, the same objects were present but there wasn’t anybody (not even a puppet) struggling to use them; the children didn’t need to give instructions to anyone.

Each child had to do 5 tasks, consisting of 1 pointing task, and 4 iconic-gesture e.g., pushing, pulling, etc.) tasks. They were playing with the puppet while it encountered difficult tasks and had to ask the child for help, e.g., could not reach a marble, could not draw because they didn’t know how to hold the pencil properly; this way, the interaction between the child and the puppet seemed natural, since it occurred as they were playing games together.

The results show that children in the communicative condition produced far more iconic gestures than the children in the control condition. Children also pointed significantly more during the pointing task in the communicative condition; they never pointed in the control condition.

“Soon after their second birthday, young children are able to produce iconic gestures that are constructed spontaneously and intended to communicate,” the researchers conclude.

Children are better able to use gestures when expressing themselves especially when they know that someone else can benefit. This study shows that children want to be helpful, and even at young age, are able to use nonverbal communication to instruct others. Interestingly enough, this was not at all evident in the control condition; only when children were with the puppet did they utilize gestures and pointing. Children begin to master nonverbal communication at a very young age, but continue to improve throughout their lives.

In a context where children have someone to talk to or help, they have a lot more to say, whether it’s with their lips or their gestures!

Jenny Galvao_smallAbout the Author: Jenny Galvao is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph studying psychology.





Benhe, Tanya, Malina Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello. Young children create iconic gestures to inform others. Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2014. 50, 8:2049-2060. doi: