I bring this up because we now have another person living in my house who most definitely talks with her hands. I don’t know how indicative this is of an artistic and creative personality; I don’t have the extensive experience with other toddlers to compare and contrast. All I know is that my little girl talks her hands off. They wave, clap, flutter, fan open and closed, pinwheel about her head and face, slap against any surface in the world with enough solid substance to withstand a slap from a silver-dollar-sized bundle of pink flesh. And the pointing – she is always pointing at something. She points in greeting at everyone she sees. She points at objects that catch her eye, like trees or flags. She points at toys and books she wants. Sometimes, she just points upwards at the sky for the purpose of calling attention to herself (which always works).
She is very vocal, but as I’ve noted in previous posts, she is still developing an English vocabulary quite slowly. But she babbles like a talk show host, pontificating on everything around her, with supporting commentary regularly coming from her hands. Her hands are like the Andy Richter to her mouth’s Conan O’Brien, if Conan spoke only in Ewok.
That often feels like a clue to how vocal she is with those beautiful hands. She can’t form words that we understand, so she relies on her hands to help her carry her communication. For instance, it’s clear when she points to her milk and vocalizes something inquisitive that she is telling us she wants her milk. When she finishes something she’s eating and turns her hands up with a declarative grunt, it seems pretty obvious she’s saying, “All gone!” The daycare she attends actually teaches baby sign language. There’s some debate among child developmental experts about whether this ultimately impedes or improves spoken language development, but the theory behind this is that toddlers are able to understand the basic concepts of communication before they are developmentally capable of forming some consonants and conceptualizing of the dynamics of formed language. In our house, our little girl is teaching us baby sign language, every now and then sending us running to the reference chart the daycare provided us as she makes a sign that we’re not familiar with. Mostly, she says “please” and “more” in this sign language, but there is no shortage of hand and arm movement.
But this is more than just her attempts to express herself. She not only talks to the world with her hands, she also listens with her hands. When I rock her to sleep, she will feel my face, entwining her fingers in the hairs of my beard or running her palms over my nose and cheeks. She points out any abnormality, from moles on my arm to the soft white moon in an otherwise cloudless blue evening sky. She grabs objects, turns them over in her hands, practices the feel of letting them fall. Her hand motor skills are far ahead of her tongue motor skills, but her hands are also the frontline in encountering the world around her, taking in new experiences. She wants to touch everything we feed her. She wants to feel the clothes we put on her. Her favorite books are the ones with textures and objects attached, grabbing and rubbing and otherwise hearing the story in tactile fashion.
Perhaps talking with one’s hands really is an indication of creative artistic expression, only because it keeps us connected with a whole-body experience of the world. If we grow up wanting to touch and feel the world around us, using these wonderful tools God has given us to engage our environments in a two-way conversation of encountered experience, I would imagine this keeps our imaginations open and active. I suppose all artists do something with their hands, whether it’s painting or playing a music instrument or committing words to a page. But of course, all of us do something with our hands, whether it’s something our culture would deem artistic or not. We feed ourselves; we text on our phones; we shake hands with friends. How desperately we learn to depend on our hands! And this begins before we learn to depend on language or even to walk. It is, as I’m seeing, how a human being’s imagination engages the world.
So I will keep talking with my hands, and I hope my little girl does, too. It’s a beautiful dance, this hand-flinging, and until her vocabulary improves, it’s how we talk to each other. It may not be completely artistic, but it is creative. Every day, my little girl is creating her very self as she swings those tiny fingers through the air, bending and curling them in new and inventive ways. Conversations have never seemed so fresh to me.