A Unique Child

Non verbal communication – Communicating with young children without talking

  • Non verbal communication – Communicating with young children without talking

Q: Do you think grown-ups understand you?
A: Sometimes I wish we didn’t need words (E, female)

You know how it is - some children are real chatterboxes, barely pausing for breath, and others are more like a verbal Fort Knox that you have to break open for even the briefest of conversations.

It’s up to us, of course, to accommodate both personality types; but it can be tricky to form a meaningful connection with a child who is either reticent, or is struggling with a language barrier.

I met E in an inner-city nursery with a high number of refugee children, some of whom had been recently uprooted from their homes and others who had been in the UK since they were babies.

E fell into the second category, but even so she wasn’t opening up; and it was impossible to guess why she felt the way she did.


She had never been what you’d call talkative and when I first started working with her, she clearly felt herself to be somewhat of an outsider.

I noticed she enjoyed stroking fluffy toys and thought that might be a way of reaching her.

The next day, I brought in a kind of scarf - a series of fun-fur spheres evenly spaced along a four-foot length of elastic.

Non-verbal communication can be less threatening for little ones

I stood near to E, obviously enjoying stroking the fur, until she took notice. I carried on, smiling warmly, but she didn’t approach me.

Later I left the scarf lying on a chair and she tentatively patted it until I breezed up, pausing alongside her, but she made no attempt to engage.

Literal connection

Time passed with similar occurrences, until one day in the playground I offered her the opposite end of the scarf to the end I was holding - tossing it to land on the floor close to her.

She picked it up. We now had a literal connection. We gently swung the scarf and stroked the fluffy balls at each end.

Eventually I moved my hands one sphere along the scarf to see if she would copy. She did, so we were now just a little closer to each other.
Over the weeks, we played this game on a daily basis. Some days, when E felt good, she would move her hands along the scarf until we were almost touching and other days she’d prefer to keep her distance.


I respected her choices and mirrored them. Our scarf game was a way to learn how E was feeling on any given day without her feeling pressurised.

It’s my belief that finding a way to let E take her time until she felt confident enough to communicate more directly and verbally, strengthened her feeling of belonging within the class.

It’s funny isn’t it? We will quite happily approach babies and toddlers by pulling faces rather than using words, but this habit tends to fall away as our children get older, despite its continuing power in building a communicative connection.

Yes, it can feel a bit silly, but it’s an extremely useful tool for learning the protocols of conversation. There’s effective turn-taking. There’s making the decision whether to copy what the other person offers up or to strike out with something original.

There’s the balance between paying attention to what is presented to you while thinking of how to respond without delay.

As grown-ups we live in a world absolutely full of words, but non-verbal communication can be less threatening for little ones.

It can transcend language barriers and can help you connect with hard-to-reach children.

I think it comes quite naturally to us really. All we need to do is adopt a little more intention in order to gain some extraordinary results.

As part of the How to Speak Child project, Nikky has been collecting interviews with children about how adults communicate with them. To read more, head to the How to Speak Child blog or follow her Facebook page. Nikky’s book, Create, Perform, Teach! (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £14.99) is out now.