Updated: May 11, 2021
Gestures are the earliest symbolic communication that all children use. Gestures teach children many reasons to communicate. Some people think we have to start teaching communication by using a request—“I want.” That puts an unnecessary limit on the kinds of meanings a child can express.
How well children use gestures when they’re one year old is a good predictor of their language skills at age three. Adults’ responses to your child’s gestures will build communication skills. Their success expressing their ideas motivates them to communicate more. They also learn all the social reasons for communicating with others. Your child needs to learn how to express many different ideas and communicate for many different reasons. Gestures are the foundation for that learning.
WHY START WITH GESTURES
Gestures are easier to use than speech. That doesn’t mean that your child will be “lazy” and not develop speech. Decades of research have disproven this myth.
When you and your child use gestures, you also say the word aloud. After months of just using the gesture, children start to use the word along with the gesture. Over time, the gesture fades away.
Children who have delayed speech need gestures even more than typically developing children. Their understanding of the world is expanding. They have definite opinions and feelings they need to express. While we’re wait for speech to emerge, children’s frustration builds when their ideas are not recognized.
Gestures help children continue to expand their social skills. In the list below, you’ll see many social functions that are communicated with gestures. Our goal is to keep children engaged with other people, because it’s in social interactions where most learning occurs.
16 GESTURES BY 16 MONTHS
Last week I described the first six gestures most often used by children before they start to talk. Today we’ll look at ten more. Children learn the gestures from your examples, so your child might learn some not on this list.
If you are looking for ideas, though, these gestures are useful because they’re the most common and they’re easy for everyone to understand. The list was developed from research at the First Words Project.
If you want some ideas for how to teach these gestures, you can download my checklist of gestures and teaching strategies here.
Clap and say “Yay!” whenever you or your child do something worth celebrating—putting a block in a box, taking a step, finding a toy, whatever. Your child will first imitate by just putting their hands together. As their muscles develop, they get better at the clapping movement.
Clapping helps your child learn about the pleasures of getting social feedback from others. This is the root of social reinforcement, which is saying something that motivates a person to continue a desired response. Over the years our enthusiastic “Yay!” turns into the “Good job” and “Thank you” feedback we use every day.
Your child will imitate your clapping when you celebrate their action. Be sure to clap for yourself, too, so they can learn the important friendship skill of celebrating the accomplishments of others.
Family members love to blow kisses to little ones. It’s reinforcing for everybody. Your child gets lots of attention, and the family member gets some love.
This is an action where it’s easy to see shaping in action. Shaping is when we start with a response the child can make right now and we reinforce them using it for a meaningful purpose. The movement gets more refined over time, as well.
At first, if our child doesn’t put their hand to their mouth, we help them move it into position. They get lots of reinforcement from the excited response of adults. Later, our child puts their hand to their mouth without help, and later they do the complete movement of throwing or blowing the kiss.
If you’re child is learning this, observe how others are responding in this situation. See if you can use the same level of excitement and focused attention when teaching other skills.
Model blowing a kiss whenever you or others are saying goodbye. You can even say goodbye if you are just leaving the room.
In addition to learning to enjoy social reinforcement, your child is learning the communicative function of social routine of greeting/goodbye.
POINT WITH INDEX FINGER
Your child has been pointing with their whole hand. Be sure to act like this pointing has meaning, so they keep using it. When their fingers get more coordinated, they’ll be able to point with their index finger.
Model pointing when looking at pictures in books. You can hold up one object in each hand and ask, “What do you want?” When your child moves their hand toward one of the items, you can point to it and say, “This one” as you give the object.
Toys that have small openings are also good for practicing using just the index finger. Your child will enjoy poking their finger into a shape sorter, the window on a doll house, or a light socket!
Pointing serves the functions of calling attention to an object, commenting and asking for information.
FINGER TO LIPS “SHHH”
Here’s another gesture that develops when your child can isolate their index finger. Put your finger to your lips and say, “Shhh,” then whisper or tiptoe to demonstrate being quiet.
Model “Shhh, nighty-night” when putting your child or a doll down to sleep. Play a sneaking game by saying “Shhh” as you tiptoe to surprise someone or hunt for a toy bunny.
“Shhh” serves the functions of regulating (controlling) the behavior of oneself and others.
NOD HEAD OR THUMBS-UP “YES”
Learning to gesture “yes” is harder than it was to learn “no.” “No” grows out of a natural movement that’s associated with a specific meaning (rejecting food). “Yes” doesn’t have this handy context—it gets modeled in all kinds of situations for all kinds of reasons.
Your chid will probably first nod “Yes” to confirm they want something. You can hold up an object and ask, “Want duck?” When your child reaches for it, you model the nod and say, “Yes.”
Nodding “Yes” serves the functions of confirming or agreeing with information.
WAVE HAND “STINKY”
Most children probably learn this gesture first from adults’ comments while changing diapers. You can model the reaction in other situations, also. Wave your hand in front of your face and say “Pew!” when there’s a strong odor.
Wait for a response from your child when you model the gesture. They may not imitate, but look for a way they recognize your meaning. Make it a fun, entertaining interaction.
The general communicative function of this gesture is to comment on the experience. It’s most often used for the purpose of initiating a fun social interaction or for entertaining others.
HAND UP AND FORWARD “WAIT”
“Wait” is a very useful concept to teach as early as possible. You can incorporate the gesture into any daily routine. As you’re getting something for your child, use the gesture and say, “Wait.” Make the wait really short for now. Your child is learning the meaning of the word—that the item is coming but not here quite yet.
You can also use the gesture in the context of your child’s movements. You want them to sit and wait while you get something, wait till you’re ready to catch them at the bottom of the slide, or stand by you while you get the car seat ready. You can say “Go” to signal the waiting is done.
“Wait” serves the function of regulating behavior. Your child can learn to regulate their own behavior and control the behavior of others.
HANDS UP AND ARMS OUT “I DON’T KNOW”
This gesture is often modeled when we’re searching for something. We say, “Where’d it go?” Or “What is it? with our hands turned up. The “I don’t know” is communicated by the gesture even though we might not say it out loud.
Model the gesture during daily activities—searching for a mitten, looking for a spoon that fell on the floor, hiding a toy under a box. Ask the question while you make the gesture.
When your child imitates your gesture, they’re learning the function of responding to a question. They can also ask a question by using the gesture.
SLAP OTHER’S HAND “HIGH FIVE”
High five is a social routine. It gets shaped when we show the child the expected response. Holding out your hand and waiting is good practice for using balanced turn taking. You make the offer, then wait for a response from your child.
If your child doesn’t respond after you wait, you can help them slap your palm. Every time you offer the high five, you always wait. Don’t assume they will need help.
This gesture serves a purpose similar to clapping. High five is more age-appropriate by the time your child develops the ability to perform the gesture. Your child is learning to respond to another form of social reinforcement.
FINGERS AND THUMB TO MOUTH “HUNGRY”
Putting your fingers and thumb together and tapping them on your lips is a symbol used in sign language to mean “eat.” It’s a handy gesture to learn because it can be understood by anyone.
Begin teaching the gesture when food is present. Just before you give some food to your child, use the gesture and say, “Eat” or “Hungry.” You are only modeling at first; don’t make your child use the gesture to get the food. They need to learn the meaning first,
If you see your child imitate your gesture, that’s the time to get really excited. Be animated and say, “Yes, eat!” as you give the food.
Model several times a day for at least a month before you start shaping your child’s use of the gesture. Gently help them put their fingers by their lips. Don’t try to shape the fingers precisely. You want to get the motion of touching fingers to lips. Be sure to always give the food as soon as they use the gesture.
You can also be modeling the gesture when food is not present, but use it to indicate that you are going to get some food right now. After you get the food, you can again model the gesture before you give the food to your child.
This gesture teaches your child the communication function of requesting. It’s a good one learn because it opportunities come up several times a day, so your child gets plenty of modeling and practice.
WHAT COMES AFTER THESE GESTURES?
Typically, children start to speak the word along with their gesture. They do this after using the gesture for several months.
If your child has mastered 16 signs but hasn’t started saying any words, that means they need to learn more gestures. There are many reasons a child’s speech might be delayed, but using gestures is NOT one of those reasons.
Your child needs to continue expanding their social reasons for communicating and more ways to express their ideas, opinions and feelings. When we avoid teaching them gestures or signs, we slow down their progress in communication, social relationships and learning.
It’s never too early to consider alternative and augmentative communication. It will only help. Your child can switch over to using speech when those skills develop. It will be much easier for them to switch if they have a strong language foundation already built.
You can get a handy checklist of the 16 gestures along with teaching strategies here. Use it to record your child's progress,