So, what to do when you a put a finger to your mouth and your kid looks at you like antlers are sprouting? Or, they see a picture of a kid sticking their tongue out and have concerns about illness instead of grasping teasing. Sounds like a teachable skill and a fun one to tackle at that! So, I created a body language dictionary. I printed out the following list and taped in on both sides of a piece of card board. (Feel free to cut and paste for your own play.)
A and B
Beckoning: Come here
C and D
Clap: Well done, attention please
Cover ears / Fingers in ears: Too loud
Cover eyes: Afraid
Cross arms: Crankya
Cup hand to ear: listen
E and F
Finger on lips: be quiet
Flat hand in front: Stop
G and H
Hand in front of mouth: surprised, embarrassed
Hand up in car: Thank you
High five: Good job
I and J
Jumping up and down: Excited
K and L
Little frown with hand on chin: Thinking
M and N
Nodding head: Yes
O and P
One finger up: Pause, one minute please
Pat on shoulder: Encourage, that's OK
Pointing: Pay attention to ____
Q, R, and S
Raise hand: I want a turn
Rubbing eyes: Sleepy
Rub tummy: If feels hungry, happy, or ouchy
Scratching head: I'm confused, I don't understand
Shake head: No
Shaking finger: No, not a good idea
Shaking fist / finger: Not good, I'm angry
Shrug: I don't know
Sticking out tongue: rude no, rude teasing
Swinging the arm elbow first: Darn!
T, U, and V
T with hands: Time out, pause
Tipping hat: Hello / Good bye
Tongue out to the side: Concentrating
Twirl finger in circle: Keep going, pass that
W, X, Y, and Z
Waving: Hello / Good bye
We read it a few times and then started playing. First, I got to play the body language and, if he forgot, I could point to the entry. It doesn't take much to imagine how gleeful it makes a kid to see their mommy doing all these motions in full exageration mode. Lots of laughs, lots and lots of fun. Then it was a car game where I could just say, "What does beckoning mean?" and we'd see if I could stump him. We'd point out body language in pictures and movies and during outings too. This was a fairly easy one to master. The next step was much more tricky, but hugely rewarding.
Movie Freeze Game
Social situations are so complex for a kid learning to decode, to deeply understand what is going on. If you've got a kiddo who likes to talk, and process, process, process out loud [hand raised, I've got one of those!], then this can be a great tool to add to your parenting tool box!
So, you're going along in a familiar movie, say, Disney's "Peter Pan" and Wendy has just asked how to get to Neverland followed by Peter's answer, "Fly!"
The screen is paused.
Wendy has a surprised look.
Peter has a smile and his arms up to show flying.
Then we play the Movie Freeze Game!
(Paraphrased from: Building Social Relationships: A Systematic Approach to Teaching Social Interaction Skills to Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Other Social Difficulties )
MOVIE FREEZE GAME
1. What is happening or what has happened? (Describe what's going on, the place, behavior, or problem)
2. How does the person feel? What are they thinking? (Name the feelings or thoughts of the people)
3. Why is the person feeling that way? Tell me why you think they are feeling that? (Show me evidence or proof that you understand the people's feelings.)
4. What do you think will happen next? What will be the consequences? (Figure out what will happen next.)
5. What could the person have done differently? (Figure out other choices, alternatives)
6. Figure out the consequences for alternative behaviors or choices
So, this would have been an early example, because it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what each character is feeling (open mouthed surprise / smiles / arm gestures), why they're feeling it, and that jumping into a pretend world means normal consequences are not to be expected. I have had some incredibly deep, insightful conversations with my son though with more complicated scenes that really allow him to explore the depth of emotions, choice making, and potential consequences. For example, the scene at the start of The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary Edition) where the grandfather bursts in with a big smile, his arms open wide, the boy is rolling his eyes (has just told his mom that he doesn't want the visit), and the mom is looking sympathetic. Playing the two minute scene (from entrance through the grandfather pinching the boy's cheek) and evaluating all the characters thoughts / motivations provides a rich context for evaluation. My son can think about the grandfather who is happy, thinking he's going to share a special story with his grandson, excited, eager, and unaware that pinching a cheek is not earning him affection. We can think about the kid who is sick, doesn't want visitors, is excited about receiving a present, terribly disappointed that it's a book, and would rather be left alone. After the five minutes of conversation at the time, these conversations tend to come up again and again as my son processes the social ramifications. He understands that the tone he uses to respond to a gift means something because, in the movie, the boy's response "a book" was said in a tone that clearly indicated the gift was not welcome. I can think of so many other examples... we're still talking about how he doesn't want to live in Egypt because he wants to make his own choices and they have a dictator there (discussing about pharaohs after Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ).
Steps 1-3 are really the key for getting the most out of the scene at the time. I found 4-6 useful after lots of practice with 1-3 and also when those first steps were quick, so the meat of the social context was in figuring out what to do with an obvious conflict i.e. over an object or situation. The questions are guidelines too, meant for pulling out the context and helping a child evaluate the situation with your support. The beauty of this tool is the lack of urgency and fascinating conversations it can spawn. I hope you find in useful in enjoying your child's cognitive growth! I've found it a delightful practice over the past several years.
I'm certainly interested in what others have done to nurture social learning. I've used many of these questions with books and social interactions we've observed too!