How hand movements and speech tip the balance in cognitive development: A story about children, complexity, coordination, and affordances

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When someone asks us to explain something, such as how a lever or balance scale works, we spontaneously move our hands and gesture. This is also true for children. Furthermore, children use their hands to discover things and to find out how something works. Previous research has shown that children’s hand movements hereby are ahead of speech, and play a leading role in cognitive development.

Explanations for this assumed that cognitive understanding takes place in one’s head, and that hand movements and speech (only) reflect this. However, cognitive understanding arises and consists of the constant interplay between (hand) movements and speech, and someone’s physical and social environment. The physical environment includes task properties, for example, and the social environment includes other people. Therefore, I focused on this constant interplay between hand movements, speech, and the environment, to better understand hand movements’ role in cognitive development.

Using science and technology tasks, we found that children’s speech affects hand movements more than the other way around. During difficult tasks the coupling between hand movements and speech becomes even stronger than in easy tasks. Interim changes in task properties differently affect hand movements and speech. Collaborating children coordinate their hand movements and speech, and even their head movements together. The coupling between hand movements and speech is related to age and (school) performance. It is important that teachers attend to children’s hand movements and speech, and arrange their lessons and classrooms such that there is room for both.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Groningen
  • Geert ,van, Paul, Supervisor
  • Cox, Ralf, Co-supervisor
  • van der Steen, Steffie, Co-supervisor
Award date1-Jul-2021
Place of Publication[Groningen]
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • cognitive development
  • Children
  • Hand movements
  • speech
  • gestures
  • complexity
  • coordination
  • affordances

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