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Give Them a Hand: Children Who Gesture Perform Better on Cognitive Tasks

Give Them a Hand: Children Who Gesture Perform Better on Cognitive Tasks New research shows that children who use gestures do better on a problem-solving task.

The task was relatively simple: Sort cards printed with colored shapes first by color, then shape.

But the switch from color to shape can be difficult for children younger than 5, according to Dr. Patricia Miller, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.

In a new study, Miller and graduate student Gina O’Neill found that young children who gesture are more likely to make the mental switch and group the shapes accurately.

According to the Miller, there is “quite a bit of evidence now that gestures can help children think,” perhaps by helping the brain keep track of relevant information or by helping the brain reflect on the possibilities contained within a task.

In fact, gesturing seemed to outweigh age when it came to performance on the task, according to the researchers.

In testing children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5, the researchers found that in the color vs. shape task, younger children who gestured were often more accurate than older children who gestured less.

Gestures included rotating their hands to show the orientation of a card or using their hands to illustrate the image on the card — for example, mimicking the shape of rabbits’ ears for a card depicting a rabbit.

The findings are consistent with a growing body of research that shows that the mind and body work closely together in early cognitive development, Miller noted.

There also is a growing body of research that suggests gesturing may play a role in the processes that people use to solve a problem or achieve a goal, she said. Processes include holding information in memory, keeping the brain from choosing a course too quickly, and being flexible in adding new or different information to handle a task.

Studies have shown that gesturing can help older children learn new math concepts, for example, she said.

“Really, though, there is evidence that gesturing helps with difficult cognitive 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 researchers observed the children’s spontaneous gestures as they performed the tasks, as well as gestures they were encouraged to make to explain their sorting choices. Both kinds of gestures were counted in comparing high and low gesturing children.

The researchers report that children who did a lot of gesturing did better at the sorting task — even when they did not gesture during the task itself.

This makes it difficult to determine whether it’s the gesturing that helps the children perform the task, or whether children who use a lot of gestures are simply at a more advanced cognitive level than their peers. It is a question that Miller said she hopes to answer in further studies.

The study will be published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Source: San Francisco State University

Stacked blocks photo by shutterstock.

Give Them a Hand: Children Who Gesture Perform Better on Cognitive Tasks

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Give Them a Hand: Children Who Gesture Perform Better on Cognitive Tasks. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Jul 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.