Asking children aged 8-11 to describe different uses for everyday objects – for example, a newspaper could be used as a fly swatter – researchers measured how often children gestured against the number of ideas generated.
Presented with images of items such as a newspaper, pencil or tin can, it was found that the more children gestured spontaneously when thinking, the greater the number of ideas they came up with.
The majority of children’s gestures conveyed the performance of an action on the object, for example rolling a newspaper with two hands.
A second study tested whether actively encouraging children to gesture would help them think of more creative ideas. The results revealed that encouraging gesture significantly boosted the number of uses children generated.
Helping them to convey their thoughts, children who were encouraged to “use your hands and think what else it can be” came up with approximately 38 ideas, whereas those who were not actively encouraged generated around 25.
Dr Elizabeth Kirk, lead author of the study and Lecturer in York’s Department of Psychology, said: “These findings are significant to teachers and parents, as results show that encouraging children to move their hands while they think can help them tap into novel ideas. The magnitude of this effect surprised us; this simple instruction majorly improved children’s performance.”
“Gesturing helps children to think about new ideas in enabling them to explore the properties of the item, for example how the item could be held, the size, shape, and so on. When children are asked to think about how they could use everyday objects in unusual ways, they spontaneously move their hands and perform gestured actions on the imagined object. Doing so triggers ideas for creative uses – the more children gesture, the more ideas they come up with.
“Many people assume that we gesture to communicate, but it is becoming clearer that we often gesture to help us think. Previous research shows that children can be taught gestures to help them solve problems. This research shows – for the first time – that it also helps them to think creatively.”