Harnessing gesture to understand and support healthy development

Miriam A. Novack, Susan Goldin-Meadow

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Communication is a critical skill in development—it allows children to convey the contents of their minds, and gain access to the thoughts of those around them. When we think of early communication, we may think mostly of children's first words. But, in fact, early communication is led not by the mouth, but by the hands. We gesture from early in development and throughout the lifespan. For instance, babies point to objects they want a parent to see, school-aged children use their hands to describe their reasoning about complex concepts such as conservation or mathematical equivalence, and adults use gestures when talking to each other, when talking to their children, and even when they are by themselves thinking through a problem. Most incredibly from a developmental perspective, gestures lead the way in communicative and language development, and tie specifically to cognitive advancements. In this chapter, we discuss the role of gestures as they contribute to developmental outcomes. We begin by reviewing how children gain the ability to both produce and comprehend gestures, and then discuss how gesture is linked to communicative development more broadly. We then discuss how gesture, combined with language, has the unique ability to shed light on cognitive advancements, both by providing a window onto children's conceptual state and also by playing a functional role in the learning process itself. Next, we review the role of gesture in cases of atypical development, outline how gesture can be used as a diagnostic tool and discuss its potential in intervention. We emphasize the benefit of considering gesture as part of neurodevelopmental evaluations, and discuss evidence suggesting that delays in gesture production might indicate greater concerns for language or cognitive development. Finally, we offer recommendations to parents, teachers and clinicians regarding the importance of paying attention to gesture in developmental populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Child and Adolescent Health, First Edition
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9780128188736
ISBN (Print)9780128188729
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023


  • Atypical development
  • Autism
  • Blind
  • Classroom
  • Cognition
  • Deaf
  • Early childhood
  • Gesture
  • Infancy
  • Language
  • Learning
  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • Typical development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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