Giggling, guffawing, bursting with smiles — humor celebrates the joy of life.

0 to 2

by Carla Poole

The enchanting social smile of the two-month-old is the beginning of humor. Just a few months later, this special expression will blossom into peals of laughter and giggles. How does this agreeable process happen?

What better way to entice a parent or caregiver into a deeply felt connection?

A Smile Is Just the Beginning

Sharing a good laugh, especially with a charming six-month-old, is a wonderful way to build the nurturing relationships that help baby feel happy and eager to explore the world.

Games that include exaggerated inflections and variations tend to make babies giggle. Six-month-old Ross, for example, is in his mother's arms while Denise, his child-care teacher, playfully makes clicking sounds with her tongue, gradually getting louder and faster as she leans closer toward him. Ross lets out an infectious chuckle, and quickly everyone else is also laughing. By nine months, baby's attention and memory have improved. Now he can even remember a game that you enjoyed as much as he did; he wants to share the experience and try it out again and again!

Games tend to last longer when babies are actively involved. Try letting an infant pull the blanket off your face when you're playing peek-a-boo. Soon she will extend the game by creating a new twist, like hiding herself underneath. She's learning to experiment and explore — important building blocks of the learning process — while she creates new games with her favorite people.

The one-year-old has moved into a whole new genre of humor — the humor of the absurd or the incongruous. With children this age, act as though you're going to put their shoe on your own foot and watch toddler laugh at your silly antics. Laugh with the child to help her understand the joke. You can even explain, "I'm so silly. That's not where your shoe goes. It doesn't fit me! It goes on your foot!" The toddler recognizes the novelty of a little shoe on a big foot, giving her practice at discrimination, an important part of thinking and problem solving.

Taking Time to Be Silly!

Two-year-olds have very active imaginations, making connections between events that are delightfully unusual. Humor at this age also gives toddlers a creative and socially acceptable way to deal with feelings and curiosity about bodily functions. Some associations are direct; others, less so. Two-year-old Paul, for instance, finds it hilarious to offer his milk cup to the cow character in his favorite picture book. Johnny cracks up whenever he squirts water out of the turkey baster during water play. Children this age can easily discriminate between a condescending attitude and a respectful appreciation of their funny antics, so it's very important to remember to laugh with children, not at them.

When people who care for toddlers are able to be silly and playful themselves, it helps children develop a sense of humor. The two-year-olds' tendency to imitate leads to a repertoire of "jokes." They also imitate each other, enjoy laughing together, and become very enthusiastic performers, offering encore after encore! Keep in mind that an excited group of laughing toddlers may become overstimulated, start pushing or hitting, and need your help to calm down. Sometimes there is little difference at this age between excitement and aggression, because toddlers are still learning how to deal with their strong emotions.

It helps to keep a sense of humor when working with children, especially toddlers, who can be as demanding as they are charming. Appealing to a toddler's sense of humor is a good way to avoid power struggles and offer children ways to save face during a conflict.

What You Can Do

Humor can ease tensions that are a natural part of caring for young children. And toddlers offer us a refreshing perspective, where small events can prompt tumbles of laughter! Enjoy this special time in a child's life, and giggle along with the fun!

  • Remember, games that have an element of surprise are baby's first jokes. Songs with accompanying hand motions and nursery rhymes, like "Open Shut Them," "This Little Piggy," and "Buzzing Bumble Bee," give baby a gentle way to experience excitement and release, gradually learning how to calm down or regulate himself.
  • Incorporate silly changes into everyday events. To tickle your one-year-old's funny bone, for instance, play "This Little Piggy" on her ears or fingers.
  • Surprise children by placing toys in unusual places. For example, place a stuffed animal in among the blocks, and discover it with a great exclamation: "How did teddy get there?!" These shared fun times can help build interest in silliness!

3 to 4

by Susan A. Miller, EdD

Three- and four-year olds are ready for fun! They are thrilled to have the adults in their lives join in.

What Makes Us Laugh

Three-year-olds love using their expanding language skills to share silly interchanges with others. Owen laughs during snack as he calls Erin "Juicy-Lucy." She, in turn, tries her hand at funny pronunciations, asking him for a "caper cup" (paper cup). At this age, children rejoice in their sense of humor — laughing at themselves and each other.

Children this age also relish outrageously silly suggestions from adults, such as "Can you listen with all of your 15 big ears?" Note how they respond knowingly with "Oh, that's so silly!" or "You're funny!" They delight in spotting the ridiculousness of illustrations that depict familiar figures with mixed-up characteristics, like a dog with an elephant's trunk and glittery sunglasses. They giggle if someone talks in a shrill, high voice or holds his nose while speaking.

Fours, too, enjoy expressing their own wonderful sense of humor with great big belly laughs. Even if they don't understand a joke, they tend to laugh heartily and may try making up and telling riddles and jokes of their own.

Sometimes four-year-old humor may seem a bit violent, as children roar with laughter while "crocodiles eat people up" or enjoy the huge crash that accompanies a whole pile of blocks tumbling down. Because their laughter frequently relates to excitement over physical activities, fours often enjoy repeating a spontaneous mistake (as a slapstick routine), such as falling over a chair.

And, yes, they gleefully delight in using bathroom words and language about bodily functions. Slowly pouring water into the basin, Lucy smiles and states, "This sounds like pee-pee!" In a verbal morning ritual, Preston greets Martin, "Hi, poopie-doopie!" Martin laughs and repeats the greeting back to his friend.

Humor is contagious, and preschoolers love it when you think they are funny. They are also immensely pleased with their own silliness, whether in the form of a nonverbal action or calling out a long string of nonsensical rhyming words, such as "nickle-tickle-fickle-pickle."

What You Can Do

Here are some ways to join in the fun.

  • Sing silly songs together. Enjoy old favorites together, like "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" and "On Top of Spaghetti." Make up funny rhyming verses about daily activities.
  • Read books with funny events. Laugh at the silliness in Mouse Mess by Linnea Riley (Scholastic). Compare this funny tale with the other silly mouse activities in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura J. Numeroff (Harper Collins) or Mouse Paint by Ellen S. Walsh (Harcourt Brace).
  • Play word games. Make up riddles and jokes. Make puppets. Set out old, clean socks, glue, yarn, and so on, so children can create puppets to act out funny dialogues or silly scenarios.
  • Make sure your environment is warm, accepting, and inviting. Create a place where children feel comfortable experimenting with and expressing humor.
  • Help children use humor in positive ways. Discuss how humor isn't something used to tease or hurt people. Talk about feelings and what children can do if and when laughter or joking becomes hurtful.

5 to 6

by Ellen Booth Church

Fives and sixes enjoy laughing as much as younger children, but kindergartners are also beginning to understand the full range and uses of humor — both positive and negative.

Creative Thinking at Work

Five- and six-year-olds are wonderfully funny beings. They can see the subtle humor in stories and songs that often escapes younger children. They can understand and even tell jokes. And their silly actions, words, and (often favorite) "bathroom talk" are Stage by Stage. At five and six, children begin to see subtle humor that often escapes younger children.

As children begin to apply higher-order thinking skills, they learn to manipulate words and concepts to understand and create more sophisticated humor.

It's important to help children this age become sensitive about the ways they use humor: Who might be hurt by certain jokes, and why? bound to get an entire group all atwitter. By this age humor is more of a shared experience. Saying something funny isn't as much fun unless others are involved, especially for their reactions!

The creative mind of a kindergartner is fertile ground for jocularity. In fact, at some point during the year you might find yourself thinking that everything is funny to children this age. Kindergartners can use the simplest prop and turn it into a hilarious skit. The wonderful comic Jonathan Winters comes to mind. He was able to spontaneously take any prop, word, or suggestion from the audience and turn it into a sidesplitting experience — the perfect example of a kindergarten child. The onset of higher-order thinking skills affects children's humor as they learn how to manipulate words, concepts, and even reality in complex ways.

What's Funny to One May Not Be to Another

Kindergartners may find very different things funny. Some are linguistically mature enough to understand puns and other plays on words and even create their own nonsense rhymes. Active and kinesthetic children might find playful falls and silly walks funny but get insulted by nonsense name rhymes. So it's important, especially at this age level, to help children learn to be sensitive about the ways they use humor. What is the purpose of the joke? Is it to include others or exclude? Is it to harm or help? Joking can quickly turn to teasing and may result in children's feeling hurt rather than healed or uplifted by humor. Fortunately, most five- and six-year-olds' social and moral development have matured to the point where they can begin to understand and discuss these issues both in groups and individually

What You Can Do

Here are some tips to help children use humor appropriately.

  • Avoid focusing on "bathroom" humor. The more you react to this type of talk, the more attractive it is to children.
  • Discuss positive and negative humor. Humor can have a bias and/or sting that hurts deeply. Encourage children to talk about what they think is funny and what is not. Invite children to respond to how things make them feel or could make others feel.
  • Read funny books that demonstrate positive uses of humor. Literature is one of the best places to find examples of great humor — riddles and rhymes, joke books, puns, etc.
  • Encourage children to write their own joke books. Talk about what a friendly joke is and what it isn't.