Ages & Stages: Don't Forget to Laugh - The Importance of Humor

What makes children laugh tells us much about the way they think

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0 - 2

  • A baby's responses to playful physical interactions are her first steps toward humor.
  • Memory and imitation help 1-year-olds figure out that it is funny to do something unexpected.
  • A toddler's use of symbols and language leads to playing with reality-incongruities are very funny.

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • Threes enjoy sharing their sense of humor with significant adults.
  • Preschoolers enjoy making up silly stories.
  • Four-year-olds are fascinated by bathroom humor and are not yet completely sensitive to the effect their humor has on others.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6

  • Five- and 6-year-olds' vocabularies have developed to the point where they can play with replacing words in a sentence to see the humor in it.
  • Kindergartners develop motor skills that allow them to play with being uncoordinated as a way of sharing humor.
  • Five- and 6-year-olds use humor as a way of building friendships and becoming part of the larger group.

DEVELOPMENT 

0 to 2 GIGGLES!  by Carla Poole

GLEEFUL GIGGLES FILL THE AIR AS 3-month-old Sofia plays a tickling game with her teacher. The rhythmical chant of "tickle, tickle, tickle" culminates in a gentle belly rub and bursts of laughter. Six-month-old Sofia gets "the joke," and eagerly anticipates the next round of tickles. Sharing laughter with the loving adults that surround her creates positive relationships.

Stepping in to Humor

A baby's first step toward humor is her playful response to actions like bouncing and tickling, body contact that produces laughs, wiggles, and smiles. Interesting sounds captivate infants. Since each baby responds differently to new stimuli, it's important to tune in to their innate temperaments. One baby might be frightened by an activity that another baby finds hilarious. A well-timed and sensitive approach will bring out baby's charming smile.

Making Great Gains

Babies' humor evolves quickly as impressive thinking skills, emotional connections with others, and physical coordination increase. Even 12-month-olds can create jokes! For example, Evan and his teacher are playfully handing a small toy back and forth. Throughout the game, Evan receives happy "Thank-yous!" from his teacher. After a few rounds, Evan's smile brightens, and this time he withdraws the toy when his teacher tries to take it. "You're a funny baby!" They laugh together at Evan's clever trick.

Feeling Empowered

Babies also need to feel secure in their relationships. This gives them the confidence to try new things. Here Evan took control of the game without knowing how his teacher would respond. Trust in his teacher furthered his creative thinking and a joke was born!

Testing Limits

Humor offers a positive way for toddlers to test limits. For instance, it's time for 24-month-old Louis to leave the outside play space, but he doesn't want to go. When his teacher calls him, he glances over his shoulder with an inviting smile and runs away. She quickly follows and scoops him up, asking, "Are you a runaway bunny?" "Bunny!" exclaims Louis as he joins the rest of the group.

Louis is testing limits within a playful interaction. By playing along with his joke, the teacher avoids a power struggle.

Masters of Imitation

Toddlers enjoy sharing jokes and imitating one another. If a toddler plops down on his bottom on purpose, for instance, other toddlers might giggle as they imitate him and form a falling down conga line. Along with their spirit of camaraderie, this group also finds falling down funny because it is something they have recently mastered. What fun and a big relief to now play with the act of falling down.

A Silly Sense of Humor

The symbolic play and emerging language of older toddlers allow them to make lots of silly jokes. A 2-year-old might put his foot into the sleeve of his jacket saying, "Look! My shoe!" This behavior is funny because the 2-year-old now knows what a shoe really is. Therefore, the level of the toddler's cognitive and language development determines what he finds funny.

What You Can Do

Encourage toddler humor by being silly yourself.

  • Use incongruities that toddlers understand.
  • Describe and explain one toddler's joke to the others.
  • Offer a flexible play environment. Toddlers need time to explore and discover what they think is fun.

3 to 4  "I LIKE HAMBURGLERS!"  by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

LAUGHING, 3-YEAR-OLD ADAM SAYS to his teacher, who is sitting on a couch with a lion puppet on her right hand, "Look. You have a lion hand!" The two of them share in this wonderful joke, then laugh again when she removes the puppet from her hand.

Sharing Humor

Becoming increasingly more sociable, 3-year-olds enjoy sharing their sense of humor with friendly adults. Like Adam with his teacher, they love to laugh at things they consider implausible or incredible. Threes adore it when an adult playfully says something absurd to them, like "Why are you wearing that bird on your head?"

Young 3s also love to laugh at themselves when, accidentally, they do something ridiculous, such as putting their jackets on upside down or painting their fingers red along with the paper they're working on.

Finding enjoyment in sharing laughter with other children, 3½-year-olds delight in talking to each other in high silly voices or with deep, comical sounds. They usually follow these funny noises with big belly laughs. With their buddies, they relish trying out goofy things they consider hilarious, such as throwing all their stuffed animals up in the air or wildly splashing in the water tub with plastic spoons. Or they may run around and try to crash into each other, then fall down in a big, giggling heap.

Inventing Silly Stories

Preschoolers enjoy making up unbelievable nonsense stories. For example, Vanessa relates, "My dog flew up into the sky and jumped around on pepperoni pizza pies." Then, as Vanessa laughs at her own funny story, her preschool friends join in and mimic her laughter.

As they become more verbal, experimenting with the sounds of words will send some preschoolers into waves of laughter. And if a teacher happens to repeat Samantha's silly rhyming "pigety, wigety" back to her, she is just delighted. Preschoolers are fascinated by intentionally misnaming things and playing with words. Four-year-old Samuel cracks up when he orders a "hamburgler" with ketchup! And his pal Jeremy thinks it's a great joke when he keeps calling Samuel by the wrong name.

Fears and Folly

Humor also allows fours to laugh off some genuine fears they may have about such things as bleeding or death. For instance, on a very hot day in Texas, my grandson, Owen, said, "I have a new joke for you. There's a snowman outside the window." I look out, smile, and raise my eyebrows questionably. Owen laughs and says, "It died!" (meaning it melted).

Abby, age 4, laughs when her older sister asks, "What's a purple gorilla called? A grape ape." Older preschoolers, like Abby, can understand some riddles or jokes and certainly appreciate them, even though they usually can't tell a joke or get the punch line quite right. However, the logic behind many jokes and also the understanding of a play on words may still be beyond them.

What You Can Do

  • Have fun! Enjoy humor with children. Laugh with them even if they mix up the jokes.
  • Read humorous stories. A silly book like Hi Pizza Man by Virginia Walter, Orchard Books (1998), will have children giggling in anticipation of the next funny character.
  • Find funny photos. Locate pictures in family albums of people doing humorous things (like giving a pet a bath).

5 to 6 "LET'S GET THE BAD GUYS!" by Ellen Booth Church

KNOCK, KNOCK, WHO'S THERE? TANK. Tank who? Tank you very much!

Kindergarten children love "Knock, Knock" jokes. Why? Because they follow a predictable pattern they can easily replicate with any words they like. In fact, the words don't even have to make sense, as in the case of the joke above. Five- and 6-year-old children often think it is even funnier if they don't! For example, they might look around the room, see an object, and use it in the joke. "Knock, knock, Who's there? Table. Table who? Table on the floor!" (peals of laughter).

Humor Is Language

Interestingly, a 5- or 6-year-old's use of humor tells you a great deal about his cognitive and linguistic abilities. The ability to play "knock, knock" jokes, for example, shows a child is learning the rules of conversation and is able to follow and use a sequential linguistic pattern. At this stage, children's vocabularies have developed to the level where they can play with replacing words in a sentence or pattern to see (and hear!) the absurdity of it all. Calling something by the wrong name is a favorite "funny" at this stage and will get the entire class giggling.

At this stage, children pick up the pattern of riddles and will run with them in their own way. A simple riddle such as "What did the cat say to the dog?" might become "What did the banana say to the pear?" You'll notice that younger children do not find this playing with words as funny, because they still use words in a more literal way. Making sense is not what is most important to 5- and 6-year-olds. They love the fun of the silly statements, the pattern, and most important, the opportunity to laugh at their own jokes as soon as they tell them!

Humor Is Movement

During this time of development, children are taking the art of slapstick to new highs. Sometimes slapstick humor serves to cover a physical mistake (as when they trip over or bump into something); but more often slapstick comes purely from the desire to make people laugh by doing something silly. The use of physical humor shows that children are acquiring the motor control and coordination required to appear purposely uncoordinated and to make a comical movement safely. It actually takes muscle control to do this. Unfortunately, some children pick up on this style of humor a bit too much and become class clowns. As the teacher, you need to support children's humor while providing appropriate boundaries and guidelines.

Humor Is Socialization

As the famous pianist and comedian Victor Borge once said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." There is something very bonding about children sharing a laugh together. Laughter breaks down boundaries and separations and builds connections. Five- and 6-year-olds use humor to make friends, to share "secret jokes," and to be "seen" in a group. It is not unusual at this stage for children to connect with one or more special friends to share their favorite silly comments. This is both an excellent linguistic and social exercise. Sometimes these comments can be bathroom or biological function talk. Happily, children often progress through this stage quickly if not too much "reaction" is given. Be clear about your standards by telling them what you consider appropriate classroom talk without making a big deal about the rest. If they don't get a big reaction from you, they will eventually stop. However, you do need to watch carefully for teasing or sarcastic jokes that hurt other children. These must be stopped immediately. Discuss why they must stop. By the kindergarten year, children begin to understand and discuss how others feel and can engage in this type of group conversation.

Humor Is "Brain Food"

Not only does humor provide a learning experience, it is also an important part of "feeding" brain development. When a child (or anyone) laughs, the flow of blood increases to the brain. How do you feel after a good laugh? Usually we feel energized and alert. Humor can set the stage for learning by helping children release tension and focus on the task at hand. Humor increases the brain's receptivity to learning. So tell jokes and riddles, be silly, dance a jig-you will be creating the perfect climate for learning.

  • Subjects:
    Early Social Skills, Social and Emotional Development
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