Young children who use hand gestures are better at problem-solving than those who don't use gestures, a new study contends.
It included children 2.5 to 5 years old who were asked to sort cards printed with coloured shapes, first by colour and then by shape. The switch from colour to shape can be challenging for children in this age group, the San Francisco State University researchers explained.
The children who used hand gestures were more likely to make the mental switch and group the shapes accurately, according to the study in the August issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
Gestures included children rotating their hands to show the orientation of the card or illustrating the image on the card using their hands. For example, they might gesture "rabbit ears" for a card depicting a rabbit.
Mind and body
The researchers were surprised by the impact that gesturing had on the children's ability to sort the cards.
"Still, the findings are consistent with a growing body of research showing that mind and body work closely together in early cognitive development," Patricia Miller, a professor of psychology, said in a university news release.
She added that the "findings are a reminder of how strong individual differences are among children of a particular age. Certain 3-year-olds look like typical 4-year-olds. This likely reflects an interaction of natural talent and particular experiences – both nature and nurture, as usual."
Increasing evidence suggests that gesturing may play an important role in the processes that people use to solve a problem or achieve a goal, according to the news release. For example, research has shown that gesturing can help older children learn new math concepts.
"Really, though, there is evidence that gesturing helps with difficult cognitive [mental] tasks at any age," Miller said. "Even we adults sometimes gesture when we're trying to organize our tax receipts or our closets. When our minds are overflowing we let our hands take on some of the cognitive load."
The Nemours Foundation has more about child growth and development.