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Pediatric Therapy Corner: Head Shoulders, Knees and…Peanut Butter. What Makes Young Children Laugh?



by Paul McGhee, PhD,
[Adapted from P. McGhee, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children’s Humor, Kendall/Hunt, 2002.  To order, call 302-897-7827.]
When parents think of their preschool children, the first image that pops into their minds is often that of play, fun and laughter.  Teachers of young children have always been aware of the crucial importance of play for learning, but humor also makes significant contributions to young children’s development.  It builds vocabulary and both pre-reading and reading skills, helps solidify the child’s knowledge of the world, supports creative thinking, builds social interaction skills, boosts popularity and self esteem, and provides the foundation for a skill that will help cope with life stress throughout the adolescent and adult years.
Parents and care providers can help assure that a child receives these benefits by acquiring a good understanding of just how young children’s humor changes as they get older.  This makes it easier to provide humor that matches the child’s current developmental level and appreciate children’s own forays into the world of humor.
There are two basic principles to keep in mind.  One is that children’s sense of humor reflects their new intellectual achievements.  Humor is basically a form of intellectual play—play with ideas.  Children have a built-in tendency to have fun with newly developed skills—both physical and mental.
Further, humor is also the funniest during the months (maybe even a year or two) after the time it can first be understood.  Riddles, for example, are most funny in 1st and 2nd grade, but become progressively less funny after that, because they are just too easy to understand.  (This is also why adults groan at some puns.)
Developmental Changes in Preschool Children’s Humor
For each of the stages described below, keep in mind that the ages are offered only as general guidelines to give you a flavor of how humor develops.  They reflect the peak of humor associated with that stage.  Some children enter a given stage much earlier than others, and most children continue to show the previous stage of humor long after the new form of humor first appears.
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