Long before children say their first words, they use their hands and bodies to let adults know what they want and need. Children often start using gestures between 8 and 12 months old. They typically begin by pointing to things to get an adult’s attention. Later, children use gestures as if they were words. For example, when a child flaps his or her arms, he or she may be communicating the idea “bird.”
Because gestures are a natural way that children learn to communicate, teaching children signs for words can help them strengthen their language and communication skills. Using baby sign language, which is based on the American Sign Language, gives children and teachers a standard set of gestures that they can use in everyday interactions and routines to provide children with visual support for language. Using signs or gestures may allow children to communicate their needs and understand others before they can talk. Even after children begin talking, signs can be used along with speech to help strengthen their language and communication skills.
What Research Shows
- Children whose parents started using signs when the children were babies had better language skills when they were two and three years old than children whose parents did not use signs.31
- The more gestures toddlers know and use, the more vocabulary they know as preschoolers.32,33
- Toddlers who combine gestures with speech are more likely to use more complex sentences.34
Working with Infants and Toddlers
- Start with simple signs for everyday needs (e.g., more, cup, milk).
- Demonstrate the sign while speaking the word.
- Repeat the word with the sign often.
- Use simple signs or gestures in finger plays and songs (e.g., “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).
- Guide children’s hands when making a new sign or if the child needs assistance with the movements.