Signing with Children (and Mr Tumble!)

Toddler Sign Language

Gesturing is a natural part of our communication. We teach our babies to wave ‘bye- bye’ and many of us ‘talk with our hands’ alongside our voices. For some children I see using signing can be particularly helpful, it’s the little extra help that they need to get going and can allow their language skills to really take off – it’s also fun! I’m not here to talk about ‘baby signing’, which is a slightly different thing, rather using some signs to help toddlers who are late staring to talk or struggling to express themselves clearly.


It’s a bridge to spoke language, not a replacement. Some parents worry that signing may stop their child from talking, but the opposite is in fact true – signs help words along.

I often see children who try to communicate that they want something by pointing and saying ‘uh uh’. This often leaves us adults guessing what they want and resorting to trial and error. A few signs can help ease the huge frustration children (and parents!) can be feeling and help them get their message across.

If they receive what they wanted after signing they learn the message that communication is powerful, it makes things happen! They were understood! And the more they were understood the more they will want to communicate.

Signing is good because you can see it. It gives a visual cue in addition to an auditory one – helpful if your child has a fluctuating hearing loss or doesn’t seem to be picking up language that quickly.

It’s useful because it encourages you as an adult to speak more slowly and keep your sentences short and simple.

Here’s what Kate, mum to Amelia age 2 1/2 says about signing ….

“Teaching my daughter to sign has opened up the possibility of conversation between us and helped us to understand each other. It has paved the way for verbal communication and stopped my daughter feeling so frustrated. We have fun learning the signs together.”


There are different sign systems, but most people in the UK, (including Mr Tumble!) use Makaton. Have a look at the section below on where to watch signs being used. Mr Tumble on ‘Something Special ‘is a great place to start.

Try signs which are useful and motivating for your child and words which they use frequently -the biggies- I call these your child’s ‘power words’. Some of these might be:

More, help, mummy, daddy, eat, drink, teddy, car, ball, book, cat, dog, stop, all gone, again, dirty, wet, banana (or other favourite foods)

Instead of teaching ‘more’ on its own it’s best to teach your little one a word to go with it, like ‘ball’ or ‘banana ‘or whatever you are playing with This is more motivating as they can then request what they actually want.

It’s useful to include a variety of words: object and actions, social words and describing words.


Introduce a few signs at a time. Use the signs when you are talking and also when your child is trying to communicate. You need to help them realise that the ‘point and grunt’ scenario is not going to make things happen for them, rather a meaningful attempt at a word (by a sign or spoken word) gets a result. So, if it’s a drink they want and they point and grunt, you model the sign for drink and say it at the same time ‘drink, you want a drink.‘

They may begin to copy the sign themselves, if not you can gently take their hands and help them make the sign, remember to say the word as you sign it. Finally, you can reward them with their drink! Keep doing this and hopefully they will begin to use some of the signs spontaneously themselves. It’s fine if they sign instead of speaking to begin with – give them lots of praise for getting their message across. Before you know it they will be trying to say some of the words along with the signs!

It’s good to get your child’s other ‘important people’ involved too, parents, siblings, grandparents and staff at nursery. Signing doesn’t have to be difficult or stressful, just start off small with a few signs and build them into your everyday routine. You can gradually build up the number of signs you use.


These sites are really helpful as you can actually watch people signing.

I love Mr Tumble. In the past when I have mentioned using signing parents have sometimes been a bit wary, but nowadays most parents have heard of Mr Tumble and their children have even picked up a few of the signs themselves by watching ‘Something Special’.

This link has lots of fun activities and shows you how to make lots of signs – I like the nursery rhymes you can sing along to!

The Something Special magazine, out each month, is also worth getting hold of.

Child Signing

This is the Makaton site and has lots of useful information and help, including where to find your nearest signing workshop for parents. I like ‘sign of the week’ – have a new sign sent to your inbox each week – recently I’ve learnt strawberry (Wimbledon week) and football (The Euros) a great way to pick up some new signs! –

Here you can watch and sing along to favourite songs and rhymes using Makaton –

Remember – things can take a while, so be patient and keep trying!