The “Baby Fingers” Series: Cute AND Accurate

Over the years I have made no secret of my disappointment with a certain high-profile, slickly produced series of glossy board boards about signing with young children that completely disrespect American Sign Language and its users by mingling made-up gestures with actual signs and not indicating which is which.

That’s why I am so glad that the Baby Fingers series by Lora Heller (Sterling Publishing Company) exists!  This board book series combines adorable photos of young children signing with instructions for basic ASL signs that parents and children can use every day to make communication easier, reduce frustration, and increase bonding.  With topics ranging from feelings to signs to use throughout the day, this series proves that sign language board books can be both adorable and accurate.


Little Hands & Big Hands Parties!

Part storytime, part book-signing event, and ALL fun!

Little Hands and Big Hands coverJoin Kathy MacMillan, author of Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together (Huron Street Press, 2013), as she shares hands-on activities that parents and caregivers can use every day to improve communication, reduce tantrums, and promote early literacy in children ages birth to six. Books will be available for purchase and signing. Children of all ages are welcome at these family-friendly events!


Thursday, January 16 at 10:30 AM

Marilyn J Praisner Library
14910 Old Columbia Pike
Burtonsville, MD 20866
(240) 773-9460

Saturday, January 25 at 3 PM

Happy Baby Company

558 Lincoln Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15202
(412) 734-1354
**Registration and fees apply.  $15 for one person; $20 for a couple.  Children in laps free.  Each party will receive a free copy of the book.  Register online. 

Monday, January 27 at 10:00 AM

Germantown Library
19840 Century Boulevard
Germantown MD 20874

Tuesday, March 4 at 10:30 AM

Damascus Library

9701 Main Street
Damascus MD 20872


Signs of Christmas

The holidays are a great time to use signs with kids – whether they’re traveling to see relatives, staying up late for midnight mass, or missing naps, holiday times can bring changes, and signing promotes security amid the chaos.



Make this ASL holiday wreath by glueing the hands into I-LOVE-YOU signs, numbers to count the days to Christmas, or letters to spell out your name! Find complete directions at

Check out this video guide to simple Christmas signs from My Smart Hands, presented by a mom and two kids of different ages – it’s a great chance to see how those little hands actually form the signs.

Signing Helps Young Children Understand Feelings

pumpkinHalloween is the perfect time to talk about feelings with young children – and American Sign Language is a wonderful way to help children connect visual cues with feeling concepts, to help them develop an understanding of their own feelings as well as empathy for the feelings of others.  Here’s a fun song to introduce feeling signs to kids.  Extend the activity by drawing a simple pumpkin face on a whiteboard and asking the child to help you draw the appropriate expressions for each feeling.

“Pumpkin Feelings” (Click on the links to see videos of the key signs)

If you’re a happy pumpkin, clap your hands.

If you’re a happy pumpkin, clap your hands.

If you’re a happy pumpkin, then your face will show us something, so

If you’re a happy pumpkin, clap your hands.

Little Hands and Big Hands coverFind more hands-on signing activities like this one in Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together by Kathy MacMillan, photographs by Kristin Brown.  (Huron Street Press, 2013).

How Signing Enhances Early Literacy

Excerpted from Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Little Hands and Big Hands coverTogether by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013)

Whenever you communicate with your child in an involving way, you are helping her develop early literacy skills.  Because signing encourages communication and engagement, it supports early literacy.  But that’s not the only way signing helps your child develop language and literacy skills.  In her groundbreaking book, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy (2001), Marilyn Daniels describes her research on using American Sign Language in preschool classrooms with hearing children.  More often than not, her research was disrupted when the parents of her control group (a preschool classroom where the teacher was not using sign language with the students) heard about the amazing gains the signing classrooms in the study were making, and insisted that their children be exposed to sign too!   She found that hearing preschoolers and kindergarteners in the signing groups achieved significantly higher scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test than those who knew no sign.  In addition, teachers in the signing classroom reported that their students were less frustrated, got along better, and were more excited about learning than their previous, non-signing classes.

How did signing with these groups produce such extraordinary results?

  • Sign language supports different learning styles.  Signs provide a visual cue and give kinesthetic learners, who learn best through physical activity, a way to interact with letters and vocabulary.
  • Knowing the names of the letters of the alphabet is an important first step on the road to literacy.  Using the manual alphabet with children helps them learn, remember, and use the letters – long before they have developed the fine motor skills to write them clearly.
  • As children move into the preschool and early elementary years, knowing signs and the manual alphabet allows them to access two different “memory stores” in their brains for reading, spelling, and vocabulary.  For example, if a child cannot identify a letter’s sound, signing it to himself may help jog his memory to make the connection.
  • American Sign Language, like any language, stimulates the language centers of the brain, strengthening synaptic connections and preparing them for further language learning.
  • Young children tend to be more visually attuned than adults, and so signing to them naturally captures their attention.  In addition, our visual sense works best when our eyes are moving, as when one is observing signs.
  • The areas of the brain that control movement develop earlier than those that control speech.  This is why even six to seven month old babies can produce signs.  As children grow up, their motor centers continue to develop ahead of their speech centers, allowing them to express more thoughts more clearly through signs than they can through speech.
  • Adults tend to use writing as a way to process and understand information.  Young children do not have access to this tool yet, but they can use signs to serve the same function.
  • The hands are connected to the brain.  Developing the tactile sense (touch) and the kinesthetic sense (movement) helps the different hemispheres of the brain communicate with one another, allowing for more seamless processing of information.
  • Before children can understand the abstract shapes of letters, they must first develop their proprioceptive system, or a sense of where they are in space.  When a child moves, proprioceptive development is triggered as muscles, joints, and tendons make contact and brain connections develop (Johnson 2007).  The movement of signs naturally encourages proprioceptive development.
  • Signing in itself seems to be intrinsically motivating for children; as one United Kingdom study reports, “Children’s motivation for acquiring basic signing skills does not appear to stem from interaction with Deaf children or adults as much as from the language itself” (Daniels 2003).
  • Signing with children facilitates a sense of play.  Play is far more than just simple entertainment – it is the number one way children learn about the world in the first five years of life.  Play allows children to make connections between concepts and understand how the pieces of the world fit together – and if children figure these things out for themselves, the resulting brain connections last far longer than if they had received direct instruction.

For more about the benefits of signing with young children, as well as fun signing activities to use with children, see Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together by Kathy MacMillan (Chicago, IL: Huron Street Press, 2013), available now!

Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together

by Kathy MacMillan. Huron Street Press, 2013.

Order now from the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore (autographed copies that support a great cause!) or from

Little Hands and Big Hands coverResearch shows that signing with young children can

-reduce frustration for both parent and child

-increase IQ

-stimulate language learning

-enhance bonding

-raise a child’s self-esteem

All those reasons are great, but the best reason to start signing with your child is that signing with babies, toddlers, and young children improves everyday life and communication. A child who can express him or herself with the aid of signs is far less likely to get frustrated and throw tantrums, and can initiate conversations about topics that interest him or her, which leads to adults talking more about those topics, which leads to a motivated and interested child absorbing more spoken language, which helps develop spoken language skills.

Signing with children naturally complements other language and literacy activities such as books, fingerplays, rhymes, and songs. Little Hands and Big Hands offers solid background information on signing with children ages birth to five, along with hands-on games, fingerplays, songs, and more that parents can use throughout the day to smooth transitions, calm a fussy child, or engage a stubborn one. Each activity is accompanied by photos of the relevant signs.

Even better: the book features American Sign Language, which, as a real language, stimulates children’s language development in a way that made-up gestures can’t. Author Kathy MacMillan is a nationally certified American Sign Language interpreter and has been sharing the joys of signing for years through her “Little Hands Signing” programs for children and families. Find out more about her signing classes and storytelling programs here.

Little Hands and Big Hands Sneak Preview: Taking Turns Bounce

Little Hands and Big Hands coverHere’s a fun and engaging bounce rhyme for babies and toddlers from my upcoming book, Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together (which you can pre-order here!).

Put your child in your lap and bounce side to side to the rhythm as you say the rhyme.

Taking turns is fun to do

First it’s me (MY-TURN) and then it’s you (YOUR-TURN)

Back and forth and to and fro

MY TURN, YOUR TURN, here we go!

Now let’s do it slowly! (Repeat the rhyme slowly)

Now let’s do it quickly! (Repeat the rhyme quickly)

MY TURN: Tip a sideways L-handshape towards your chest.

MY TURN: Tip a sideways L-handshape towards your chest.

Tip a sideways L-handshape towards the other person.

Tip a sideways L-handshape towards the other person.

A note about the signs: The signs MY-TURN and YOUR-TURN are both wonderful examples of the economy of space and directionality in American Sign Language!  When signing MY-TURN, the palm of the hand should be facing you.  When signing YOUR-TURN, the back of your hand should be facing the person whose turn it is.  You can also show a group of people taking turns by tipping the sign toward each person in turn.

Why it works:

This activity allows your child to experience and internalize language with multiple senses – hearing the words in a rhythmic way, feeling the rhythm as you bounce her along, and seeing the signs.  The back-and-forth nature of the rhyme and the bounce also emphasizes the directionality of the sign, so that when you use it in context, your child will understand it clearly.

See a video tutorial for this bounce here.

Check out Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together for lots more fun ideas to promote early literacy through signing!

Developmental Milestones in American Sign Language

If you are signing with your baby, sometimes it can be hard to gauge your child’s progress since most language development benchmarks tend to focus on spoken language only.  The Ontario Infant Hearing Program offers comprehensive lists of developmental milestones from birth to 24 months in both sign language and spoken language on its website here.  This is a great tool to help parents and educators learn what to expect from their little signers at various ages!

Signing with Young Children

Why Do It?

  • Children can learn to sign long before they have the ability to speak. Using sign language with your baby can reduce frustration for both of you. Your baby can tell you exactly what he wants!
  • Children exposed to sign language early in life will not only find it easy to learn ASL later, they will find it easier to learn ANY language later.
  • Early exposure to language may increase I.Q., social skills, and create deeper bonds between parent and child.
  • Sign language is not only good for your baby, it’s fun! And it’s not just for babies either – keep up the learning as your child begins to speak, and you and your child can develop a second language together.

Tips for Signing with Your Child

  • Teach the signs for everyday objects and activities first. Use the objects to reinforce the signs often, until your child begins to sign it back. Remember, they can understand you before they sign it back, so keeping using it.
  • If the child begins to sign back, reward him or her with lots of smiles and hugs and kisses.
  • Be consistent. Make sure you use the same sign each time for the same object.
  • Use your face. 80% of ASL is on your face and body, NOT your hands. The sign “HAPPY” doesn’t mean “happy” unless you’re smiling!
  • Accept your baby’s signing style. Babies won’t always make a sign correctly the first time they sign it, just like they won’t speak a word correctly the first time they speak it. Keep signing it the correct way and your baby will soon learn.
  • Reinforce signs throughout the day to help you both remember them. You can learn signs from books, though videos and live people are usually a lot easier. See the other side of this sheet for great resources to help you both learn.
  • There are lots of places to sign! You can use sign language at home, in the car, at the park, while reading stories. You can also make the signs in different places to help your baby understand. Sometimes sign it on her, on the book, or on yourself.
  • When using signs with your baby, it’s a good idea to use American Sign Language. There’s a big difference between American Sign Language, which is a whole language, and Signed English, which is just a manual code to represent English words. By using ASL, you’re giving your child (and yourself) a chance to learn another language!