TAF >> Teaching Materials >> Online Publications

PART I Myself & the Neighborhood
  Myself & Neighborhood
  Community Quilt
  The Mail Carrier
  Let Your Fingers Do the Walking
  The Sign Walk
  Who I Am
  Baking Bread with the Little Red Hen
PART II Exploring Systems
  What's in a Thumb
  Parts of You
  Puzzles Are Systems
  How Many Systems Do I Belong To Right Now
PART III Communicating with Others
  Talking with our hands
  Lullabies link people
PART IV Myself and the Larger World
  Move, Feet, Move
  The Challenge of the Desert
  Planning a Park
  Communication Tools
  TV or Not TV
  Missing the Point
  Who Likes Animals
  A Simple Chocolate Bar




This activity is an introduction to nonverbal communication, through which people convey a variety of messages. This is a first step toward developing an ability to conceptualize language as one element in human culture.

Areas of Study

Language Arts
Social Studies
Art (optional)
Safety (optional)


Students will: Plan and participate in a short field trip on their own school site, during which they will observe instances of nonverbal communication. Engage in the formulation of rules or group standards for the conduct of a field trip. Demonstrate their comprehension of the concept of communication by employing both verbal and nonverbal means of reporting their observations. Use their hands and arms as means of expressing themselves in creative drama activities or in finger painting. Develop skills in observation, reporting, discussion, and group participation.

Suggested Time

Four or more class periods. One class period can be devoted to motivating the children and to establishing rules of conduct for the field trip; a second to the field trip itself; the third and fourth can be given to reporting and discussing their observations and to creative movement and impromptu drama activities. Additional periods can be devoted to finger painting and/or finger plays.


Pencils, notepaper for recording observations on the field trip (for older children), finger painting materials (optional)

Comments to the Teacher

Almost every human gesture is learned. Each of us learns the gestures of our culture just as we learn its spoken and written language. Therefore, although human beings universally use gestures to communicate, not all gestures mean the same thing to all peoples.

Because this lesson is designed for young children, and because it is introductory in nature, it does not attempt to consider cultural differences in nonverbal communication patterns. In later lessons that can, and should, be done. Here it is sufficient to heighten awareness and increase children's sensitivity to the nonverbal communication which surrounds them.

It is important that children, early in their schooling, be introduced to the concept of nonverbal communication. They are living in a time when the number and variety of communications to which people are exposed have increased at an unprecedented rate. They are experiencing a communications explosionöand that explosion is not all verbal.

Many research studies confirm that young children are influenced by both the verbal and nonverbal language of television. As a result, they exert considerable influence on the products their parents buy.

Just how much television has the average child in the United States seen, prior to entering first grade? Conservative estimates are that the average child has watched 4,000 hours of television before formal education begins. That means the young child has absorbed many verbal and nonverbal messages, usually without adult guidance in "sorting out" what they mean. Television, in many homes, is the official "babysitter."

Before specific aspects of this lesson are considered, perhaps one final word is in order about nonverbal communication in general. Few people realize just how extensive the nonverbal communication "vocabulary" of English speakers is. One scholar, R. L. Birdwhistell, places the number of body movements English speakers use at 300. Compare that to the number of symbols in the English alphabet. Needless to say, a goal of this lesson is not to have younger children catalogue body movement; but one goal is that students, in their first years of schooling, be made aware of the tremendous number of messages which human hands and arms can convey, even within the environment of their own school.

Beginning the Lesson

To begin, ask the children to think about their own hands and arms and tell how they can do many things with them. The children may point out that they can hold things in their hands. They can lift things, cover things, and so on. Ask the children if they've ever thought about how people use their hands and arms to "talk" to each other. And then explain that they are going on a field trip around the school to find out for themselves how people in their school use their hands and arms to talk or communicate.

Take time to work on skills of group participation before setting out on the field trip. Establish through discussion the need for rules or standards of conduct on the field trip. Let the children suggest rules and encourage them to give reasons why they think those rules are "good" or "fair." One rule which you and students might agree on is that everyone should be quiet as they move through the school to collect data. That is a "good" or "fair" rule because it is not right for one class to disturb others who are at their own work.

Explain to the children that they will have plenty of opportunity to talk about their findings after they have returned to their classroom. They will need to observe well and to remember what they see. Older children who can write should take along pencils and notepaper and be instructed in how to take notes on their observations.

You may wish to help the children know what to look for by mentioning just a few of the kinds of nonverbal communication which they are apt to see. For example, they might see people:
  1. Raising their hands to indicate they want to say something;
  2. Holding their fingers to their lips to indicate "quiet";
  3. Motioning for someone to come by beckoning with their forefingers or their hands;
  4. Pinching their noses to indicate that they don't like the smell;
  5. Placing their hands over their hearts in a gesture of respect or salute;
  6. Showing students that it is safe or not safe to cross the street;
  7. Waving goodbye;
  8. Hugging someone who's been hurt or is in need of being comforted,
  9. Showing decisions made, by an umpire or referee;
  10. Directing a chorus, orchestra, or band The list of possibilities is great indeed. These examples are just a beginning, but even they indicate just how much our culture relies on nonverbal communication.

After the children have completed their field trip, have them share their findings. As they do, you may wish to list their observations on the chalkboard. Or write a short composition on poster paper, as the students dictate.

Another alternative is to let the children play a game. Have one student show a hands/arms gesture. Let the others guess its meaning.

As soon as you are satisifed that the children understand the essentials of nonverbal communication, move on to more creative aspects of the lesson.

Let the children work in small groups to plan and rehearse short, nonverbal dramas of their own devising. For example, they mime a simple story about a dog which is discovered eating their lunches. Through gestures the students can indicate their reactions and show their efforts to make the dog stop and go home. Finally, they can pantomime eating their lunches.

Another drama can be built around arriving or leaving the school grounds, emphasizing safety rules. Students can mime the story of a child getting off a bus or out of a car and then crossing a street properly with the aid of the arms/ hands signals of the student traffic squad or adult crossing guard.

A third drama may involve taking turns, or dividing and sharing.

Extending the Lesson

Younger children generally delight in finger painting. As a child finger paints, he or she literally becomes a part of his or her creation. The hands feel the paint. The arms become part of the production with elbows and sides joining in the fun of making a picture. In short, finger painting affords children a rich sensory experience; no brushes, sponges, or instruments or any kind come between the child and paint. And the child is free to paint and to express anything he or she wishes.

When the children are finished, their finger paintings can be examined. Their peers ought to suggest what they can "see" in each other's paintings. Does the painting "tell" them something? Does it suggest a story to them? Does it make them "feel" in a certain way? For example, the colors used might make the students "feel" happy, sad, or excited. By talking about each other's productions, students can increase their sensitivity to art, extend their abilities to appreciate it, and improve their oral skills. At the same time, younger children can practice computation. They can count how many finger paintings were done in the class and the number of times that red or blue was selected by an artist.

Extending the Lesson Further

Prepare a map of the school and show the route to be followed during field observations.

Take a second field trip to a nearby construction site so that the children can observe other uses of nonverbal communication.

If a television set is available in the classroom, turn on the picture but leave the sound off. Have the children watch for the use of gestures. Let them discuss what they observe.

| Programs | Teaching Materials | Publications | Links | Newsletter | Inside TAF |
| The China Project | New York & the World | SEC |

Copyright ©
2000 The American Forum for Global Education