In research published in the journal Developmental Psychology, preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control, an ability associated with cognitive maturity.
The scientists came to this conclusion after testing children for their ability to sort objects according to changing criteria. Even adults have difficulty switching from one set of instructions to another, since the brain automates some aspects of learning to optimize efficiency. Once something is learned, however, it's a challenge to unlearn and inhibit the reflexive response. That's why it helps to develop good habits early — whether it's a golf swing or eating a healthy diet. It's easier to learn something correctly the first time than it is to unlearn ineffective techniques and relearn better ones.
In the experiment, 41 kids aged 2 to 6 had to place cards in trays. In one round, the tots first had to sort pictures of blue rabbits or red boats by color and then were asked to sort them by the object's shape, regardless of color. In another game, they had to distinguish pictures of large or small yellow bears either by size or by whether teddy was right side up or sideways.
During the task, some of the children instinctively used gestures — making rabbit ears when they knew shape mattered, or moving their palms from facing up to turning sideways when they were sorting by the teddy bear's orientation — to guide themselves.
"Our study shows that young children's gesturing can help them think," says the study's lead author Patricia Miller, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. What's more, she found that this effect had a stronger effect on successful performance than age — a powerful finding given that children's skills improve rapidly with age during this stage of development.
Image: Child pointing, via Shutterstock