Miriam Novack
Doctoral Student

How do children learn from gesture?


When are young children first able to learn from gesture?


How do children interpret actions (i.e., goal-directed movements that interact with objects) differently from gestures (i.e., representational movements produced in the air)

When we talk, we use our hands to provide information. Gestures, or symbolic hand movements, can draw attention in an instructional context, add emphasis, or provide content through their representational form. In fact, research with school-aged children shows that children are more likely to learn from a lesson if the teacher gestures during instruction. Similarly, children who themselves are encouraged or instructed to gesture during a lesson are more likely to learn new ideas.

CUPS Gesture Example 73 (1)

But is gesture equally helpful for younger children? Although babies point and understand simple gestures, here we are exploring when and how very young children interpret complex symbolic gestures. We contrast learning from gesture with learning from action. Actions, like gestures are hand movements, but unlike gestures, actions interact with objects in the real world. Babies and young children are quite good at interpreting actions on objects.

Fig 1 g

Here, we consider how babies and young children think about gestures. By better understanding how young children think about and learn from gestures, we gain insight into how the young mind interprets and analyses different forms of movement.



  • Novack, M., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Woodward, A, (under review). Learning from Gesture: How early does it happen?
  • Novack, M., Congdon, E., Hemani-Lopez, N., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). From action to abstraction: Using the hands to learn math. Psychological Science, 25. 903-910. doi: 10.1177/0956797613518351
  • Novack, M., Henderson, A., & Woodward, A. (2014).Twelve-month-olds Generalize Novel Signed-Labels, but not Object Preferences Across Individuals Journal of Cognition and Development. 15(4). 539-550. doi:10.1080/15248372.2013.782460