Remember, children are watching.

From: Pointing and waving gives kids a head start in life

Children from richer families tend to do better in school, and some of that edge may arise through an unexpected mechanism, according to research presented at the AAAS meeting by psychologists at the University of Chicago.

It turns out that mothers with higher socioeconomic status communicate more through gestures with toddlers, which seems to give them a larger vocabulary when they turn up in school at between 4 and 5 years of age.

Susan Goldin-Meadow and Meredith Rowe have studied 50 families from all levels of Chicago society, from households earning less than $15,000 a year to those bringing in more than $100,000. They observed 49 mothers (and one dad) interacting with their 14-month-old children at home for 90 minutes, recording the number of gestures with distinct meanings.

Many of the gestures consisted of pointing, and the researchers scored a new gesture for each different object pointed at. Wealthier parents gestured more with their children, who responded in kind, and later had larger vocabularies, the researchers report in Science.

Richer parents also talk more to their kids, but gestures add an extra dimension to story. “These effects are above and beyond what we see in speech,” Goldin-Meadow told reporters at the AAAS.

This sparked the interest of one Swedish science journalist, who wondered what it meant for children in reserved parts of northern Europe, compared to kids in more exuberant countries such as Italy. Goldin-Meadow reassured him that while Italians “gesture big”, they don’t necessarily gesture more than northern Europeans.

How does gesturing at kids help them learn? Goldin-Meadow doesn’t know for sure, but she suggests that pointing at different objects while naming them creates “a perfect learning opportunity”.

She also has some evidence that gesturing makes the brain more receptive to learning, through research on older children showing that hand waving can help in learning mathematical problems.